Grave Mercy by R.L. LaFevers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Grave Mercy is a fantasy novel that feels like historical fiction. Our heroine is a young woman in 15th Century Brittany who has always been cast in the role of victim, until she is delivered to the Convent of St. Mortain, the God of Death who masquerades as a saint to appease the newer Christian church. Now she is the wolf instead of the prey. Ismae is believed to be the daughter of this god, since she even survived being poisoned in her mother's womb, although she is forever physically scarred by that poison. She seems to be resistant to poisons and heals faster. While Ismae never felt special so much as rejected, when the choice is a life away from an abusive husband, and some agency in her life, she chooses to become a novice in the convent, learning all the many skills of bringing death to those marked by her god.
Not long after her first mission, Ismae is sent to masquerade as the mistress of Gavriel Duval, the bastard brother of the young Duchess of Brittany. Her Mother Superior has tasked her with spying on Duval to see if he is faithful to the Duchy. If Mortain marks him for death, she is free to kill him. Instead of growing sure that Duval needs to die, she falls in love with him, one of the few men she has met who is decent and caring to women, when her own father hated and abused her. But love won't be easy when Ismae is surrounded by intrigue and treachery in the young Duchess's court. Will her father guide her aim true in these tortuous waters?
I enjoyed this book a lot. While the author doesn't describe every detail of the setting and appearance of the characters, I obtained a very clear picture of what was going on. Better yet, the story simmers with atmosphere, quite Gothic. While this book establishes itself as a historical fiction novel, the paranormal/supernatural vibe teases at the senses. The manner in which Ismae knows that her god has selected a target is quite eerie but doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, because the story fits so naturally in both categories, paranormal and historical fiction.
As far as Ismae's character, she is quite admirable. She's incredibly lethal, and I think a large part of her lethality is her quick mind and her observant nature. She makes a very good spy but also a bodyguard because of those skills. I liked seeing the mystery unfold through her eyes. You see that she isn't always unbiased, especially when it comes to men, considering her past painful experiences with men. I did like that her view changes as she comes to realize that not all men are bad and women aren't the superior sex, because they are just as flawed. She also comes to realize that people can use religion of any kind as a tool for power and control, but that doesn't invalidate one's personal faith in their god. While Ismae is very skilled at killing, she's not a killing machine. She has a respect for life and no desire to torture or cause suffering in others. This was necessary for the story to feel right. This reader is fascinated with assassins in literature, but she hates cruel, sadistic acts, and a good assassin should always show self control (or so this fictional assassin connoisseur believes).
Grave Mercy is a successful book, in my opinion. While this is slated as a young adult novel, it doesn't feel as though it's trying to talk down or dumb down the story. If anything, it aims for a clean feel, meaning no graphic sexuality or depictions of violence. But this book doesn't need that. The storytelling gives the reader what they would want for a story of this type. The author writes about themes that affect women, especially women in the past. How their lives and choices are restricted due to their sex, and how that impacts nearly every decision they make, even if they are allowed to have that much control over their lives.
Ismae is a heroine that a reader can cheer for. A lethal assassin with a supernatural ability who realizes the world is a lot bigger, less cut and dried place than she first assumed. And that love is definitely a possibility for the daughter of death, but her life and her choices are ultimately her own.
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