Series: His Fair Assassin, #1
Hardcover, 1st Edition, 549 pages
Published April 3rd 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Age Recommendation: Older YA, Adult
Grave Mercy was absolutely fantastic. It's a bit different from what the summary would suggest, and I'm really glad I read Small Review's review before I began the book, since it gave me much more accurate expectations. Not to say that I had to lower my expectations, but the plot is far more centered around political intrigue and the various machinations of the different characters. Yet even though I didn't get a rollicking action plot, I adored the story I ended up with.
The story begins in a less-than-nice way. Ismae is leaving a brutal childhood for an arranged marriage that seems a no better situation. She manages to escape after some rather nasty incidents and is taken to the convent of St. Mortain, where she dedicates her life to fulfilling the wishes of the god of death. You can read the first chapter on Robin LaFevers' website here. (A note before you click over: as I said before, this chapter has some less-than-nice things in it. The rest of the book is not nearly this harsh.)
The scenes in the convent were pretty darn awesome. Ismae doesn't just say, "I learned how to use a dagger..." but actually describes her different lessons and totally immerses the reader in the world of the convent. Daughters of Mortain (Ismae is literally a daughter of Mortain) often have special abilities granted to them by the god, and Ismae's is immunity to poison. She, therefore, specializes in learning about different poisons. In Ismae's time at the convent, she and the reader are both introduced to Annith and Sybella, the main characters of the other two books in the trilogy (Yes, it is a trilogy, but don't worry! Grave Mercy works wonderfully as a standalone).
In fact, Robin LaFevers just released a scene from the convent that was ultimately cut from the novel. You can view it here at the blog Feeling Fictional. It takes place at the convent and is an excellent example of how LaFevers describes Ismae's training.
Ismae is a fantastic character. She is a strong person but has just enough weakness to steal your heart. For all her fantastic assassin skills, she is struggling to find her place. She is so eager to get out there and start killing people (as is the reader), but she is forced to keep up her pretense as Duval's mistress in order to root out the secrets of the palace.
There is not a lot of action and not a lot of assassinations. I think Ismae kills around four people, total, in all 550 pages. There are a few people whom she helps to die, but she doesn't actually assassinate them herself. But if you were expecting lots of action and Katsa-like awesomeness, prepare to change your expectations or be disappointed.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, "This doesn't sound like a very interesting book. No action? No killing?" Never fear. I could barely tear my eyes away from the pages. The story flew by. I didn't ever feel like I was reading a 500+ page book. I was too engrossed in the story. I finished the entire book in two days, largely because I practically refused to put it down. Even though Ismae is not killing everyone off or using her amazing convent training, there is so much going on.
The majority of the story takes place in the court of Anne of Brittany. Every single character has some plot to carry out or some scheme they are trying to keep secret. Ismae has her hands full figuring them all out, while at the same time, trying to fulfill her mission from the convent. All the complex politics were really fun to read about, and as Robin LaFevers writes in her author's note (some slight spoilers), they are all true. In reality, there was actually even more going on, but she trimmed some of the characters and plots because it was getting to be just too much, and the book ended up at nearly 550 pages regardless.
Part of what kept me so interested was the superb world building. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, much of what is in the book is completely true. LaFevers certainly did her historical research, and it shows in the execution. I totally felt like I was there: at the convent, in the court; anywhere Ismae went, I was instantly transported.
And then, finally, there is Duval. I'm spoiling it now: Ismae falls in love with Duval by the end of the book. But I loved the super-slow, hate-to-love romance. Duval is a wonderful character, love interest of not, and he was Ismae's perfect counterpart. I loved the scenes they were in together (which, I suppose, is nearly the whole book), because they worked together so well.
The other characters were great as well: no cardboard cutouts to be seen. I couldn't always get into the heads of the side characters, but I was fascinated with how they played this complex game.
Quite a spectacular book. There are so many layers upon layers, and lots of different political schemes. Although the action is limited, I was enthralled by the unfolding plots and Ismae's character development. Highly recommended.
I almost never put an age warning at the end of my reviews, but I think this book needs it. This is definitely not a book for younger teens. There is nothing too explicit, but there are many adult themes and references, and the book is written for a mature audience. I would recommend for 16+.