Brittany, 1485: Ismae bears a deep red stain from her left shoulder to her right hip–a tangible reminder of the herbwitch’s poison that her mother used to try to expel Ismae from her womb. The poison didn’t work. Proof, according to the herbwitch, that Ismae was sired by the god of death himself.
Even without her wicked scar, Ismae’s parentage would be a burden to bear. Fearful of the wrath of Mortmain everyone tolerates Ismae’s presence but little beyond that. Her life is not one of comfort or compassion. Not until a priest gives Ismae one small kindness that will forever change her life.
Taken from a brutal arranged marriage, Ismae is spirited across Brittany to the convent of St. Mortmain–a sanctuary where women like Ismae, her sisters of Mortmain, work to execute their god’s work throughout Brittany.
Staying at the convent will mean a new life. One where Ismae will be trained as an assassin to serve as a Handmaiden of Death. The decision, of course, is an easy one. After being the prey of others all her life, Ismae is more than ready to be the hunter.
The life she chooses and the training are simple. At first.
After Ismae completes her first assignment for the convent several complications arise. Thrown together with a man she cannot trust and little likes, Ismae finds herself at the center of Brittany’s tangled politics as the country’s young duchess struggles to hold onto her tenuous authority. The more Ismae learns about her country and her own heart, the less she understands about her teachings at the convent. Soon Ismae will have to decide if she can follow the will of her god while also following her own heart in Grave Mercy (2012) by Robin LaFevers.
Grave Mercy is LaFevers’ first young adult novel. (She is the author of several middle grade novels including my beloved Nathaniel Fludd books as R. L. LaFevers.)
While the setting and language make for an immersive read, Grave Mercy takes a bit of time to get to the core plot not only starting years before the main story but also leading with tangentially related pieces of Ismae’s training at the convent and her assignments. Readers expecting immediate action might be disappointed though rest assured patience will pay off in the end.
Ismae, though sometimes frightening in her fierceness, is an engaging heroine as she makes her way through the labyrinths of both Breton politics and the inner workings of her own sisterhood. LaFevers handles the complicated matter of faith versus service well as Ismae works reconcile her own wants with her duties as a Handmaiden of Death. Although the latter part of the story drags as LaFevers works to resolve several plot threads, the tension is high enough to make up for it. Ismae’s personal journey remains compelling throughout.
Filled with intrigue, murder, and more than a few shady characters Grave Mercy is a definite page turner even if some shocking revelations are not so shocking when finally revealed. An excellent choice for fans of Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief books or an alternative/follow-up to Kristin Cashore’s novels. Grave Mercy is the first book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy but this book works just as nicely on its own.
Possible Pairings: Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carringer, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Agency by Y. S. Lee, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner