Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers is a gorgeously written novel suitable for young adult readers. It takes place in the secretive land of the fiercely independent Bretons who worship nine dark pagan gods that they have superficially cloaked in the guise of saints to deflect the suspicions of the hated French who are always on the verge of invasion. The most frightening of the Breton gods is St. Mortain who personifies Death.
The first scene opens with seventeen year-old Ismae, a peasant girl who has endured a loveless life since her now-dead mother first tried to expel her from the womb with an herbal poison that caused Ismae to be born with livid marks on her back. Now Ismae’s harsh father has just sold her to a pig farmer for three silver coins. But Ismae sees a chance for a better life and escapes to the convent of St. Mortain. Almost no one knows that this place exists. Here, wayward girls are trained to be assassins.
And not just any girls. Each must have an innate power that proves she is a true daughter of Mortain: she must be able to see the mark of death that appears on someone to indicate that Mortain truly wants him dead. The mark looks like a dark smudge over the body part through which the killing blow should be struck. Ismae is astonished to find that not only can she see the mark, but she also has the ability to resist poison – which is handy because she thinks her true vocation might be as a poisoner.
What makes Ismae interesting is that she isn’t a sociopath but neither is she a naďf who hasn’t fully thought through the reality of having to commit murder. She feels so authentic for her time – a medieval peasant girl who knows that everyday life for women is short, brutal, and devoid of options. She is quiet, thoughtful, pragmatic, determined to survive, and deeply cynical about men and the way they treat women. She wouldn’t mind killing a few men, especially the ones who really deserve it.
And, besides, poor Ismae is pathetically grateful to feel that she has finally found a place where she belongs. No one could be more eager to prove her worth to the convent. No one could be more easily manipulated by the enigmatic Reverend Mother. When Ismae gets her first assignment, she is even willing to pose as the mistress to a stern young knight Duvall if it will gain her admittance to the Breton court.
She and Duvall are strongly attracted to each other despite their considerable mutual distrust. Duvall isn’t quite sure what to make of Ismae. Meanwhile, he is devoted to the protection of his twelve-year-old kinswoman Anne, Duchess of Brittany, who may become his future monarch unless the French invade and conquer Brittany. Duvall is a character of great integrity and gentleness under his cool, sophisticated demeanor.
But Ismae has problems of her own. Even as she fights her growing attraction to Duvall, she starts to wonder about the political motives of the Reverend Mother. Could it be that the goals of the convent are not necessarily the same as the will of Mortain? To question the agenda of the all-powerful Reverend Mother is to risk death, and Ismae must keep her suspicions to herself. But the occasional psychic visions she receives related to Mortain and the mark of death are enough to convince her that the truth about her destiny as one of Mortain’s “handmaidens” is more complex than the Reverend Mother is letting on.
Grave Mercy is a gorgeous escapist experience that drew me deep into the emotions and perils of the brave and clever Ismae. Part of this is the first-person and present tense narrative that makes everything so immediate. But mostly it is the sheer beauty of the writing that makes the medieval world come alive. To be strictly honest, I’d have to classify this book as more of an historical novel (with supernatural touches) rather than an historical romance because Ismae’s coming-of-age feels more central to the plot than Ismae’s romance with Duvall. But it is close enough to being an historical romance that I think readers will be pleased.
Type of Romance: Male-Female Romance
Title: Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin series, book 1)
Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Subgenre: Historical (medieval) with supernatural touches, Young Adult
Setting: an alternate world France in the northwestern province of Brittany
Sex scenes: none
Viewpoint: First-person and present tense.
Note: I purchased this book with personal funds. I received no compensation for this review from the author or publisher. Look on Amazon.com for Grave Mercy (Book I): His Fair Assassin, Book I (His Fair Assassin Trilogy)