Title: Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers
Length: 549 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼
After escaping her abusive father, Ismae spends three years in the convent of St. Mortain, god of death, training to serve Him as an assassin. Now seventeen, she is on the verge of taking her final vows. First, however, she must face her most difficult challenge yet: braving the dangerous and deceptive world of politics in order to protect Anne, the new Duchess of Brittany, from treachery and to preserve their country’s independence. Yet the longer she spends at court, the less certain Ismae is of her own beliefs, the convent’s teachings, and the very nature of being a handmaiden to Death.
Going into my review, I had no idea how to rate this book.
Should I rate it as historical fiction, as a romance, as a story of political intrigue? Or as an action-adventure–or as fantasy? Should I rate it purely based on how much I enjoyed it whilst reading, or should I take into account things that occurred to me since?
As historical fiction, I would give it three-and-a-half out of five stars; as romance, a two-and-a-half; and as action-adventure or fantasy, perhaps a three. The writing gets three-and-three-quarters stars, the characters a solid three, and the overall plot a three as well, I suppose. And upon finishing, I thought I’d likely give this four stars overall. (Turning opinions into numbers is difficult!)
So where does that leave us? With 3 stars and a quarter, a lower rating than I anticipated giving this one, to be sure. As I found points that I agreed with in many three- and four-star reviews, though, I guess it isn’t that surprising.
With that waffle out of the way, I’ll try to discuss how I actually felt about Grave Mercy. While I found it entertaining and engaging, well-written and quite readable, and populated by a handful of very strong characters, something never quite clicked for me.
I love Death Personified stories (see: Keturah and Lord Death and The Book Thief); this one, though…well, Mortain, the god/patron saint (depending on who you ask) of death, was discussed often but present only rarely. Considering the narrator was one of Death’s handmaidens, His literal daughter, details about Him were quite hard to come by. For example: how (and why), exactly, does He take mortal lovers? What kinds of special powers do His children–who seem to all be daughters, at least judging from this installment–possess, if any? The world-building was lacking is what I’m saying. The MC Ismae spent three years studying in the convent of St. Mortain, yet most of those years and all her lessons are glossed over for the sake of the plot. As a result, readers are left with unanswered questions aplenty.
Then again, I’m not the target market. A large percentage of readers appear to have picked up Grave Mercy because of its premise (assassin nuns). I, for all that I enjoy crime novels, am not a fan of assassin-related…well, anything. This stems–I think–from my deep attachment to Abraham Lincoln, who lost his life to an assassin’s bullet, but I digress: assassins just aren’t my cup of tea. I understand complaints that for a novel about an assassin, there was not nearly enough assassinations going on–Ismae does a lot more listening and talking than she does killing, that’s for sure. It does feel a bit like false advertising. But since that was not what attracted me to the book, I’m not going to complain.
There was much more talking, plotting, and mystery-solving going on than there was action (fatal or otherwise). Sometimes it came across as a simplified version* of Game of Thrones–which makes sense since Grave Mercy is set during the same period that inspired George R. R, Martin’s series, though it takes place in Brittany rather than England. It was a shame, though, since Ismae excelled at killing but fumbled about court. The convent was supposed to teach her how to act like a courtier (and a courtesan), but she conveniently “skipped” all those lessons. It certainly makes readers scratch their heads and wonder why the abbess would ever have sent Ismae into the viper’s nest that is the Breton court, a place where stealth, charm, and a good poker face could mean the difference between life and death. I’m being a little unfair. She never humiliated herself, but she was in over her head.
* I think Game of Thrones is often needlessly complicated, so “simplified” isn’t a slight in this case.
All that said, I liked Ismae as a character. At first I was on the fence about her, but she develops in such a way that she grew on me. She begins the novel as somewhat bitter–understandable, given her abusive background–and blindly loyal to her saviors at the convent to the point of sometimes sounding brainwashed. She proved herself to have a mind of her own, however, and one that is not so closed as it first appears. Unlike some YA heroines, she usually thinks before she acts, and she slowly proves able to adapt to new ideas and information. It’s just a shame that she is sometimes so slow on the uptake. I knew who the traitor was a hundred pages before it even occurred to her. She has guts and a good heart, but maybe lacks some brainpower. Her particular gift for poisons had the potential to add to her character, but it got short shrift between Ismae’s ineptitude as a courtier (or courtesan) and her slow-burning romance.
And then there was Duval, her love interest. He was likable, charming and deeply loyal to his sister (Ismae’s main mission is to spy on him, but it’s obvious from the first page that he is every bit as Good as he seems). Despite their early bickering, it is also obvious how the relationship between Duval and Ismae will develop–so obvious that I felt somewhat disappointed, rather than delighted, when it did. The characters had some chemistry and Duval was quite chivalrous throughout, but their romance was so predictable that it dampened my enthusiasm. Ismae also had the disheartening habit of losing her wits when Duval came around, which made it even less interesting to me.
The actual plot revolves around young Anne de Bretagne, the new Duchess of Brittany and Duval’s half-sister who finds herself besieged on all sides by ambitious, impatient suitors as well as the land- and power-hungry French to the south. Ismae’s assignment is to discover who among her nobles intends to betray Anne, and therefore Brittany, and to dispatch them accordingly. I’ve already mentioned that therefore, perhaps inevitably, there’s a lot more talking than there is action. That is, in part, because Ismae spends a good three hundred pages trying to figure out the identity of the traitor(s). Of course, when the action picks up again and the plot kicks into high gear, everything ends up feeling rushed. Explanations and clarity are passed over in favor of shock and emotional impact. Without getting too spoiler-y, the romantic climax struck me as both sudden and more than a little preposterous.
Anne (who is supposed to be twelve, though I’m hard-pressed to believe that even royal fifteenth-century twelve-year-olds were as composed and self-possessed as she is shown as being) comes across as admirable enough, I suppose, but there was nothing memorable about her.
As for the remaining characters, Duval’s friends were fun and colorful, and I gather they play bigger roles in the sequel(s); Ismae’s friends were barely worth mentioning. However, the antagonists all seemed quite one-dimensional. Alain d’Albret, the worst of Anne’s persistent suitors, was an especially bad offender.
That brings me to the history behind all of it. Several characters, including Anne and d’Albret, are real historical figures. I avoided reading up on the real Duchess before finishing the novel, understanding that much has been dramatized for the sake of the novel. I’m alright with that. I enjoy both real history and historical fiction and would like to think I’m not a purist. That said, I’m not so thrilled about the portrayal of d’Albret. Historically, he was much older than Anne, who did refuse to marry him–but he did not, as in the novel, have six previous wives (only one) or a reputation as an abusive husband. I consider that kind of deliberate misrepresentation of a historical figure, any historical figure, for dramatic purposes to be quite distasteful (something I discussed more fully in my review of The Spanish Queen).
Other than that complaint, Grave Mercy does succeed as solid historical fiction, and as YA historical fiction, it impressed me. Ismae’s voice is believable for the time period and none of the characters, events, dialogue, or general attitudes struck me anachronistic. The oft-repeated “women-are-powerless-pawns-without-agency” line did grow tiresome after a while, especially since the novel’s myriad proactive female characters were forever proving it false, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the book.
Robin LaFevers has definite talent as an author. She writes very pretty prose (I admit, though, that I wish she’d spent less time describing Ismae’s dresses and more describing the landscapes). Even where the story dragged, the writing remained fluid. A few things got under my skin, however–namely the way Ismae seemed, somehow, to know other characters’ thoughts and motivations (i.e., “So-and-so felt this way” or “so-and-so thought this or that”). Either write in third-person omniscient or in first-person; you can’t have both! After a while, some of her descriptors and phrases became repetitive as well (“So-and-so said sharply” comes to mind as something very often repeated). Other than those small nitpicks, though, he writing itself was the strongest part of the novel.
Pretty writing cannot always cover up plot holes or inconsistent and unfinished world-building, of course. If the former was its most obvious strength, the latter were Grave Mercy‘s most glaring flaws. Had as much space had been devoted to world-building as was to political intrigue, this could’ve been avoided. Ismae’s abilities and their potential were never explored nor explained–to the story’s detriment.
I still enjoyed the book as a whole, and I would recommend it. I’m also given to understand that the next book in the series–Dark Triumph–leaves this one in the dust. Maybe it will answer all of my questions. We’ll have to see!
P.S.: This book really needs a better cover. It deserves a better cover. Why do mediocre books get awesome covers, and vice-versa? Why?