LaFevers, Robin. Grave Mercy. 2012. New York. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
Plot: Ismae is a servant of the god of death, Mortain. She resides in a convent devoted to his service. The convent carries out assassinations based on information gleaned from their seer’s visions.Their targets usually have marks on their bodies that only Mortain’s chosen can see. After years of training Ismae gets her first assignment, but it doesn’t go as expected. Upon returning to the convent having seemingly botched the assignment she is given the task of finding a traitor to the Duchess, the monarch of her country. Ismae must pose as the cousin of Duval, one of the Duchess’ closest advisors at court. Once at court Ismae must decide if she can trust Duval with her secrets and most important of all her heart. Ismae’s struggles with her religion, politics, loyalties, and her parents will resonate with teens.
Grave Mercy has a complex plot with characters that the reader will want to get to know better as the series goes on, especially Sybella. The plot moves swiftly while maintaining enough balance to allow good character development. While it’s 576 pages may seem daunting to some readers, most fantasy fans expect and want this level of complexity. LaFevers’ world building is such that even those who don’t know much about medieval France will pick things up quickly.
Not all authors can deal with women’s lack of rights in a medieval setting well. However, LaFevers manages to make Ismae’s initial hatred of men into one of her strengths rather than her weakness. As her relationship with Duval develops, Ismae doesn’t lose her edge or expect him to take care of her. She wields a crossbow, a dagger, a garrotte, and poison with ease. She saves Duval from danger more often than he saves her. While the term strong female character gets thrown around a lot in YA fiction; Ismae is the best example this reader has come across in a while.
That strength is very evident in the scene where Ismae first meets Sybella at the convent. Sybella is on the verge of madness having been abused by her family, and only Ismae is able to calm her. They bond over their hatred of their fathers, and become close friends. At least as close as Sybella allows. While Sybella does not command most of this book the second book in the series, Dark Triumph will focus on her point of view.
Ismae must also grapple with the villains in the novel, Count D’Albret and the French Regent who continually try to seize power from the Duchess. Count D’Albret has a formidable army which would be of use to protect Brittany from an invasion, but rumors abound that he has killed all his former wives. Working closely with Duval, Ismae is able to thwart his plans to marry the Duchess throughout the novel.
While religion is not the focus of the book, Ismae serves St. Mortain, known as the
God of Death. There is religious change in the wind, so the old gods are now called saints by the people. Ismae and the Abbess(the leader of the Convent)often argue about what Mortain’s will really is for his chosen followers. Ismae constantly struggles with the morality of killing those who bear the mark of Mortain. She becomes sure that the mark may not mean the person must die, but that the person may die if they continue with their dark deeds.
LaFevers has written a dark, sophisticated novel true to the fairy-tale conventions of castles, high courts, and good versus evil, and spiced with poison potions; violent (and sometimes merciful) assassinations, and gentle, perfect love. With characters that will inspire the imagination, a plot that nods to history while defying accuracy, and a love story that promises more in the second book, this is sure to attract feminist readers and romantics alike.
Book groups and book clubs will have plenty to discuss in Grave Mercy. They might focus on the religion of the convent, and why these young women are being trained to kill. The fantasy mixed with the historical fiction could be discussed. Would it have been as good a story without the fantastical elements like Ismae’s immunity to poison? Similar to the Oracle of Delphi, the convent also relies on visions to interpret Mortain’s will. Is this really how the convent should decide a person’s fate? Is D’Albret too evil? Would the novel have been better had we gotten to know more about his need for power?
Reviewed by Beth K.