Grave Mercy- A Second Look

Grave Mercy
By Robin LaFevers
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Published on April 3, 2012
Source: Netgalley

Summary taken from Goodreads:

Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae's most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?


The concept of this book was fascinating to me.  I'm a huge fan of strong female characters, and so the idea of Ismae and her cohort of Assassin Nuns seemed like it was calling my name.  Unfortunately, I wound up not loving the book as much as I'd hoped.  It got off to a promising start, but dragged in the middle, so much that I wound up putting it aside for a while until I could push myself to continue reading.  The book picks up a lot more in the last third as all of the courtly intrigue and conspiracies quickly wrap up.  While reading the last chapters on the train to work one morning, I found myself so engrossed in the plot that I actually missed my stop.  

Ismae and the general plot of Grave Mercy kept reminding me in some ways of Jacqueline Carey's (decidedly more adult) Kushiel's Legacy series: a young woman recognized as having special, god-given gifts and trained from a young age in very unique arts; the danger inherent in getting involved in courtly machinations and plots to put people on the throne; an uneasy working partnership that blossoms into something more.  Ismae isn't Phedre, to be sure, but still, it's a comparison that I found myself thinking of frequently.

There's a somewhat large cast of supporting characters to keep straight, especially once Ismae arrives at court, and it's easy to forget exactly who is suspecting of betraying this person or that.  I think I would have had an easier time keeping track of details had I not gotten so distracted at the middle of the book.  Ismae is a character with some depth, and she's not instantly good at everything she tries her hand at.  Owing to both her own past and her training at the convent, she is distrustful of many people and mostly unaware of matters of the heart.  She's easily frustrated and sometimes makes rash decisions without thinking them through, which rings true for a seventeen-year old thrust into a situation so deadly before she's really ready.

There's romance -- of course there is -- but it blossoms slowly.  Ismae occasionally acts incredibly lovestruck, which was a bit frustrating to read, every time she digressed into talking about her feelings or became overwhelmed by a simple touch.  I wanted her to be less blinded by whatever feelings she was developing, but at the same time, she's still a teenager, despite her deadly Assassin Nun training.  And while I didn't completely buy into the chemistry between Ismae and  her beloved, I did find her discomfort over the situation (is she going against rules of the convent? does he really have feelings for her? how could he love her when he knows what she is?) to be believable, so that's something.

Grave Mercy sets the stage for a planned trilogy of books.  I'm going to take a wild guess and say that the next two books will feature Sybella and Annith,  two other initiates at the convent who we meet through Ismae.  While I wasn't as impressed as I'd hoped to be with this book, I will also say that I plan on seeking out the other two to learn more about the sisters of St. Mortain.

As a side note, many of the characters have some basis in actual history (although Ismae and her assassin nuns are, unfortunately, not real).  There really was an Anne of Brittany, who attracted a fair number of suitors but could not marry without approval of the French.  It's an interesting read, at least, and shows that LaFevers did her research to weave real people and events into the magical alternate universe that she created for the novel.

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