Published: April 3, 2012 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Series or stand-alone: His Fair Assassin (1)
Source: ARC from the publisher
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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?
As I start this review, I'm thinking back on my experience reading Grave Mercy, and realizing: I almost don't know where to start, what to say, or how to ever, in a few paragraphs, accurately express my overwhelming admiration for this stunning novel. Robin LaFevers has a rare gift; she hasn't just written an entertaining novel - with Grave Mercy, she has created a novel that will linger on in my heart and in my mind for a long time to come. Between Ismae - unyielding, brash, brave, fierce, and loyal - and Gavriel - a courtly enigma wrapped in a mystery - and the mythos she has created, Robin LaFevers's debut novel struck a chord with me that is still resonating in the back of my mind as I begin the torturous wait for the sequel.
Startlingly bleak at times, brimming with hope at others, Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Reinne, whose mother was forced to attempt to induce a miscarriage - one that Ismae survived, only to endure the disgust of her father, who ultimately trades her in marriage to a vile man. Ismae, then fourteen, escapes to the convent of Saint Mortain, one of the old Gods...the God of Death. Ismae is offered the chance to live with the sisters there, and to train in the many dark arts that comprise the ways to kill someone. Ismae, feeling this is her calling, decides to stay; after all, what better home for a daughter of Death? The story flips to Ismae, now seventeen, on her first small assignments, but Robin LaFevers quickly ramps up the action and the danger, with which this story is fraught with from page one to the final page. Ismae is thrust into her first serious assignment - to infiltrate the tumultuous court of Brittany, where the young child duchess, Anne, struggles to retain her seat of power. Gavriel Duval, bastard brother to the duchess is Ismae's reluctant partner in this mission, which only serves to further complicate Ismae's state of mind, as she quickly realizes she is in over her head and out of her league in the court, and with Gavriel. I sympathized with Ismae right away, who, for all she knows about death, knows so little about love or friendship. As Ismae set out on her journey, I was right there with her as she tried to pull off a subterfuge unlike any other she'd undertaken so far in her training.
Robin LaFevers doesn't hold back with either the richly developed court, or the vividly hued characters; everyone, no matter how major or minor stands out lushly, unforgettable. Ismae accompanies Gavriel to court, where the two remain frostily civil to one another, even though it's immediately clear there is a delicious tension between them, one that Robin LaFevers explores with a gentle, emotion-filled, thrumming touch. Gavriel and Ismae have an achingly poignant connection that I wanted to drink up and just revel in, though at the same time, I so enjoyed the halting glimpses they each gave one another of themselves too much to want to rush either of them toward anything. Their progression was perfect, and natural, and organic - a slow-building chemistry that befitted each of them, Ismae especially, who has never known kindness. Nothing about them was fake or over-done or instantaneous, except that first flicker of interest in one another despite themselves. I could have read about them for the entire course of Grave Mercy, and not minded at all; they were that gorgeous.
However, the main plot of Grave Mercy was too satisfying to long for much else; watching Ismae navigate the corridors of court while trying to untangle the lines, secrets, and plots between the various nobles was a puzzle in and of itself. Though trained in the sinister arts of weapons, poisons, and such, and able to painfully or mercifully (depending on the person) administer a kill as soon as her master, Death, marks a victim, Ismae is hopelessly lost in court. I was as out of my depth as she was, and it was a great challenge, trying, like her, to figure out who was aligned with who, what was going on, and which plot would put the duchess in danger, versus who wanted to help her succeed. I really liked Anne, and several of the other supporting characters, and I loved Ismae's fierce loyalty to her. I hope we might get to see more of Anne, her sister, and even Sybella, one of Ismae's convent sisters, alluded to several times yet seen only once or twice, who nevertheless seems fascinating.
I don't give perfect ratings and I never feel comfortable saying there was nothing wrong with a book, but the more I think back on Grave Mercy, the more I realize: Robin LaFevers has written a truly wonderful, flawless novel. The romance and scandal and intrigue against the backdrop of the historical setting just pulses with emotion and heart-pounding peril. The characters are intensely lifelike, and the religious mythos is well-developed and believable. As I said in the beginning, Grave Mercy has left its mark on me, and I'll be thinking about it and craving more of LaFever's writing right up until the next installment.