[ Advanced Book Review ] Teen assassin nuns in medieval Brittany

Advanced Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

His Fair Assassin Book 1

Publication date: April 03, 2012

Grave Mercy is middle grade novelist LaFevers’ first foray into Young Adult fiction. And what a great debut!

When Ismae’s arranged marriage ends on her wedding night with her husband going to get a priest to burn Ismae for being a witch, the young girl escapes to the convent of Saint Mortain. There, she is told that the scars she had from birth mark her as a daughter of Mortain, the god of Death, and is given the choice to stay and become one of His handmaidens, tasked with dealing death at his bequest. After seventeen years of being a victim, it is no choice at all.

Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?

Ismae’s first important assignment takes her straight into high court intrigue; Brittany fights to remain independent from France, and the young duchess who can make that possible is besieged by traitors and treason. It is up to Ismae to use her training to unravel the undercurrents at court and serve Death by eliminating the enemies of Brittany. But in the real world, nothing is so straightforward, especially when it comes to the Duval, the duchess’s handsome and tempestuous young adviser–who may just be the traitor Ismae’s looking for.

I haven’t had much luck with YA novels recently, but this book has renewed my faith that I can still be blown away. It has suspense, adventure, betrayal, and a well-built, believable romance.

LaFevers creates a strong narrative voice in Ismae and tempers her considerable powers and skills with her utter lack of experience. In this way, I think everyone can relate to being sent out to do a job they’ve only ever studied in a classroom (hello terrifying internship!). As she hits the real world, Ismae is forced to confront everything she’s believed in with a new and critical eye. We get strong secondary characters, mistrust, revenge, and redemption.

There are also significant focus on adult themes such as sex and sexual and physical abuse, so I would recommend this book for older YA readers and adults. Another area where mileage may vary is in the pacing: Grave Mercy takes the time to build up the characters and relationships before hitting the reader the twists. If you’re the kind of reader who likes to see the romance and fireworks from page one, you might find yourself getting a bit impatient. But as someone who loves a well-written setting in a fantasy (and historic fiction!), LaFevers’ skilled historic backdrop and prose hit the spot.

The historic backdrop itself–and the plot–is based on real figures and events (which delights me to no end):

“The political intrigue and switching alliances in the book was also historically accurate, although in the interest of not swamping the story—or the reader—I left quite a few additional alliances and machinations out. Suffice it to say there were about twice as many schemes going on in real life as I used in the book, including additional suitors, competing claims for the throne, and additional double crossing.”

-From Robin LaFevers blog post, Author’s Note

Grave Mercy is a fantastic pick for fans of both historic and traditional fantasy. It’s a delightful, seamless story, and I can’t wait for its sequel.

Complimentary copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Books.


Is this on your reading list? What do you think?


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11 thoughts on “[ Advanced Book Review ] Teen assassin nuns in medieval Brittany

  1. Have heard a lot of buzz about this book lately, but it frustrates me to hear that the pacing is a little slow since I have a hard enough time sticking with fast-paced books, lately, as it is. I might have to check it out though, considering it’s got the whole fantasy concept in gear ~ there isn’t nearly enough fantasy in YA!
    Great review! Looking forward to reading this one 🙂

    • If I had to pick, I’d say readers of epic (and okay, romantic) fantasy would enjoy this more than paranormal romancers. It doesn’t start out slow (in fact, it starts mid-action), but it’s not shy of world-building either.

      What really delighted me, though, is when I discovered how closely it tracked real historic events. When I finished the book, I had been sure that it all came from the author’s imagination (minus the geography).

      You’ll have to let me know what you think if you do end up reading it!

      • I’ve sort of given up on paranormal romances myself and have found more of a liking with epic fantasies. Glad to hear there’s some romance, though, since I enjoy well-told love stories! If you haven’t read Finnikin of the Rock I think you’d love it and should give it a try!

        I’m pretty excited about the fact that there’s some real political intrigue there, too! I love it when authors are able to craft reality into fiction so believably that you can hardly tell.

        I’ll definitely let you know!

  2. I loved this book, too! It does take its sweet time to get started (and I found Ismae a bit off-putting at first), but once it gets up and running, it’s a blast straight through to the end. I also liked its combination of history and fantasy. I’ve got the sequel on my nightstand right now!

    • That assassin nuns thing really was what got me to grab this book off a shelf. Which is a brilliant stroke of marketing, really, because assassin schools and cults have been done to death, so it was a neat trick to package it in this clever way.

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