Mortal Heart: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“The sum and total of who I am and who I will ever be is already contained within me.”

Mortal Heart by Robin LaFeversSired by Death himself, all of the girls at the convent of St. Mortain are blessed with gifts from their godly father and tasked with carrying out his dark work in the world. Annith has watched her sisters come and go from the convent of St. Mortain, all the while waiting patiently for her own chance to serve Mortain and leave the confines of life in the convent behind.

After years of proving herself the perfect novitiate, after passing every test, Annith’s future outside of the convent is less than certain. When she learns that the abbess wishes to groom her as the next Seeress, Annith knows it is time to strike out and choose her own path–wherever it might lead–in Mortal Heart (2014) by Robin LaFevers.

Mortal Heart is the conclusion to LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin Trilogy. It is preceded by Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph.

Like its predecessors, Mortal Heart works largely on its own since Annith is a new narrator and the arc follows her. The larger events of 1488 Brittany and the young Duchess’ struggles to hold onto her country continue as do the machinations of the Abbess.

Although there is a lot of overlap between these books in terms of their timelines, Mortal Heart is the first time readers truly get to know Annith as more than an extremely skilled and obedient novitiate of Mortain. However, Annith soon reveals that she has quite a bit of grit. Even without special gifts from Mortain like her closest friends, Ismae and Sybella, Annith is a fierce protagonist who is not afraid to seek out her own path.

Readers of the first two books will anticipate a certain order of events to this story. While many expected elements (and familiar characters) do feature here, Mortal Heart still has numerous surprises to keep readers guessing (or, more accurately, gasping in surprise).

As always LaFevers delivers a well-researched historical fantasy as well as a detailed author’s note separating fact from fiction and outlining the actual historical events featured in the novel. This book is well-plotted with a perfect balance between new story and tying up elements from the previous installments in the series. Mortal Heart is an expertly written conclusion to a delightfully clever series. The only regret readers will have is realizing that the series is truly over.

*This book was acquired for review consideration from the publisher at BEA 2014*

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, The Agency by Y. S. Lee, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

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Dark Triumph: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Dark Triumph by Robin LaFeversNantes, Brittany, 1489: Trained by the convent of St. Mortmain in the arts of death and seduction, Lady Sybella is no stranger to killing or spying. Even before learning she was a daughter of death and coming to the convent, Sybella had done much of both to stay alive.

Over the years Sybella learned to harden her heart until even she begins to believe she has none. She dreams of revenge and justice, the day she will become a divine instrument of vengeance when she can kill the traitorous Count d’Albret.

But instead of her desired mission of vengeance, Sybella finds herself acting as a spy in d’Albret’s household, a dangerous mission for anyone but even more so given Sybella’s past. Her formidable array of weapons and skills may not be enough to escape this living nightmare. Not alive anyway.

Mortmain has already rejected Sybella twice, though, so death is hardly an option either.

Sybella is trapped until new orders arrive from the convent.

A prisoner is locked in d’Albret’s dungeon. The prisoner is of extreme importance to the young Duchess of Brittany as she struggles to hold onto her kingdom and keep d’Albret and his ilk at bay.

Sybella is only meant to initiate the prisoner’s departure. Instead, she is swept into the escape as a reluctant nurse and travel companion. This one change thrusts Sybella into an entirely surprising direction–one where her life may not have to end in order for vengeance to be served. Stranger still, Sybella may learn there is more to live for than the promise of revenge, or even justice, in Dark Triumph (2013) by Robin LaFevers.

Dark Triumph is the second book in LaFever’s His Fair Assassin trilogy, preceded by Grave Mercy (with the conclusion, Mortal Heart, due out in 2014). (She is the author of several middle grade novels including my beloved Nathaniel Fludd books as R. L. LaFevers.)

There is a very satisfying overlap between the plots of Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph. It’s also becoming clear that the books are building together to an epic finish. That said, I really think Dark Triumph could work as a standalone. It doesn’t have to. And it’s certainly better to start at book one. But if you really wanted to, Sybella’s story stands on its own quite nicely.

I didn’t realize how much I loved this improbable series about assassin nuns until I finished Dark Triumph. As great as Ismae’s story and voice were, Sybella’s is better. Dark Triumph is a grittier read with sharper edges but also more satisfying outcome. As LaFevers points out in her author’s note, the story takes many more historical liberties. Happily, the atmosphere and language remain.

I also enjoyed the expanded view of Mortmain. Sometimes I have problems with books that deal with some kind of “faith” because they veer into the territory of conventional religious dogma. LaFevers artfully shifts the theology of His Fair Assassin into a different direction. Reading about Mortmain never feels like reading about a god or even religion. He really feels like a father. And I appreciated that nuance.

Sybella is an angry, broken narrator who is at pains to convince everyone that she has no heart–especially herself. Dark Triumph is the story of her own healing as much as it is a stunning historical fantasy filled with action and intrigue. I can’t talk about some other aspects without spoiling both books, but the way Dark Triumph comes together with Grave Mercy is impressive. I also adore these heroines and their male leads. These books, right here, these are what true partnerships look like.

Dark Triumph is a surprising, original read sure to appeal to anyone who likes historical fiction, journey-based fantasies, or a damsel who rescues herself (and maybe the prince while she’s at it).

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, The Agency by Y. S. Lee, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Author Interview: Robin LaFevers on Grave Mercy

Robin LaFevers’ first YA historical fantasy Grave Mercy came out earlier in 2012. I was already a fan of Robin’s middle grade series featuring Nathaniel Fludd. This start to a series about assassin nuns in 1485 Brittany is another winner. Robin is here today to answer some questions about Grave Mercy.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell us a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Robin LaFevers (RL): I began writing when I was staying at home with my two small sons, looking for something for just ‘me’ and a way to maintain my sanity. I decided I would return to writing, something I’d loved as a teen but put aside for the real world. It took about ten years of practicing, attending classes and workshops, and writing some pretty awful stuff, but then my first book was accepted for publication, which was just as magical a moment as one thinks it will be.

MP: What was the inspiration for Grave Mercy?

RL: I knew I wanted to write the story of a girl who was utterly powerless and put her through all the trials and ordeals that would shape her into an instrument of power—not just physical power, but also the power to stand firmly in her own self and make her own choices and decisions.

For that kind of story, I needed a big, sweeping canvas with high stakes and lives and kingdoms at risk, and a time when teens were in a position shape the world around them. That search brought me to the middle ages and a world full of sacred relics, patron saints, and lots of social turbulence.

Then I stumbled across another fascinating research tidbit and learned that many women in the Middle Ages preferred joining a convent to marriage because convent life gave them more independence and autonomy than they could ever have as married women! That kind of lit my imagination on fire and began to play with what sort of convent would be the best avenue for my heroine’s journey, and I decided on a convent that would give her power over life and death.

MP: Although it is a fantasy, Grave Mercy is grounded in its historical setting of 1485 Brittany. What kind of research did it take to write about this time period? (Note to readers: If you want to know more about the history behind the story Robin posted an author’s note on her website here: http://www.robinlafevers.com/history/)

RL: One of the (many!) things I love about research is that not only I learn amazing details of how people lived and thought centuries ago, but there is such great story material as well. I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a twelve year old inheriting a kingdom, but once I stumbled across it in my research, I knew that was the perfect backdrop for the book.

Then I researched the time period, the politics, the geography, what everyday life was like back then, and the folklore and spiritual beliefs. I acquired all sorts of wonderful research books. (In fact, my husband insists I only write so I have an excuse to buy research books!) Luckily, I write in the age of Google, so I had access to a wealth of information, oftentimes I was able to look up ancient Breton lineages on obscure genealogy sites, or I would find that the walled medieval city where Anne lived still existed and I could see it online. I would spend hours studying the geography of Brittany, which lords owned which parts of the country and who was aligned with whom. Thank goodness for university websites and devoted history buffs, that’s all I can say!

MP: One of the best things about Grave Mercy is how seamlessly it blends history and fantasy. How did you approach writing about characters in this distinct time period? How did you go about capturing the right “voice” for your characters?

RL: One of the things I find most fascinating about writing historical fantasy is really trying to understand the worldview of people living in earlier times. What was life like without technology, where there was little understanding of science or the laws of physics and so much of life felt random and out of one’s control? Since Ismae belonged to a convent that served Death, what would her faith look like? How would her devotion be tested? What sorts of rituals would her life entail? Those questions were in the forefront of my mind whenever I sat down to write and helped me get into the head of a 15th century girl—what metaphors and similes would she use? What points of reference would she have? So that was probably the key to having her feel medieval on the page.

I also tried to (mostly!) use words that were only in use prior to the 16th century or phrases that felt reminiscent of that era. I definitely fudged sometimes; when the choice came down to readability I went for that over historical accuracy every time, because my overriding goal was that the story and the voice of Ismae be accessible to today’s teen reader.

MP: When you are not writing about teen nun assassins as Robin LaFevers you write books for younger readers as R. L. LaFevers including the Theodosia books and the much loved (by me) Nathaniel Fludd Beastologist series. What is it like writing for these different audiences? Does your writing process change?

RL: I wouldn’t so much say that my process changes, but that my sensibility changes. I am very aware of my younger audience when writing for them and feel very protective of their sensibilities–wanting to go dark enough to be spooky, but not so dark as to radically upset their worldview or perceptions of the world as essentially a safe place.

With Grave Mercy, I pretty much had to UNlearn all of those habits and give myself permission to cut loose. It was particularly difficult because I had Sister Lorna, my teacher in Catholic school when I was in 2nd grade, lurking on my shoulder quite a lot and muttering about irreverence and inappropriateness. It took a while to dislodge her, but I eventually did. :-)

MP: Although all of your books have very different characters and plots, all of your titles (so far) are set in the past—albeit pasts with a bit more fantasy than ours. What draws you to the historical genre as a writer? What draws you to fantasy?

RL: I think one of the things that fascinates me is that history feels like the place where magic and reality meet–so it feels like rich and fertile ground. So many of the things we think of as fantastical actually have their roots in history, whether old religions, folklore, ancient cultural practices, or mystery schools, so I like drawing from those sources because it grounds stories in the realities of the past and makes them feel more real. Also?I think it’s just hard-wired into me, a desire to see the small magics and mysteries that make life more interesting.

Also, one of the themes I’m drawn to is the issue of personal power and taking kids from feeling powerless to a place where they begin to feel as if they have some power over their lives. Fantastical power is a lovely, subtext-laden vehicle for personal power.

MP: When she arrives at the convent of St. Mortmain, Ismae discovers an affinity for poisons. Other daughters of Mortmain have other gifts to use in completing their god’s work. If you were to be a daughter of Mortmain what gifts would you have hoped to receive from Mortmain?

RL: I’ve always been drawn to the idea that death can be merciful or a gentle release, so I would definitely want gentle gifts of some sort, those that would allow me to ease people into death. A benevolent poison perhaps, or the misericorde.

MP: Set during a turbulent time in Brittany’s history, Grave Mercy is filled with political machinations and intrigue. As a writer, how did you go about pacing this aspect of the story and deciding what to reveal when?

RL: Gah! I nearly broke my poor brain trying to manage all that. I used colored index cards, complex timelines, plot diagrams, character grids broken down by act, colored pens. Pretty much any tool I could think of that would allow me to break down the elements into manageable pieces so I could then use the left side of my brain to reconstruct them in the best way possible. It also took about seventeen drafts over five years, which should give you an idea of how much I wrestled with it.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

RL: My next project is Dark Triumph, the second book in the assassin nun series. Sybella is such a different character than Ismae! For one, she is noble born, not the daughter of a turnip farmer. But she has had a much darker and more traumatic past. And she is far angrier and more unstable than Ismae ever was, and has far more dark impulses of her own that she struggles to control. For all the bad things that had happened to her, Ismae was fairly innocent. Sybella however, has made some bad choices that have truly haunted her.

MP: Do you have any advice to offer aspiring authors?

RL: 1. Write because you love it.
2. Give yourself the luxury of a long apprenticeship–allow yourself to really learn the craft and experiment with different styles and forms.
3. When you have learned the basics of the craft, then sit down and write that book. You know, the one you’re terrified to write. The one that is too hard, too scary, too weird, or too damn intimidating. Yeah, that one. That’s the one I can’t wait to read!

Thanks again to Robin LaFevers for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find more information about her books on her website.

If you want to read more about Gravey Mercy check out my review!

12 for 2012

It was incredibly hard to pick just twelve books for this list. (Even limiting myself to just 2012 publications was difficult as I read so many wonderful books this year.) My original list included 19 titles–all of which I did really enjoy. But, there can be only twelve (until 2013 anyway!) so, without further ado here are . . .

My Twelve Most Favorite books from 2012 (in alphabetical order):

  1. The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken: In addition to being one of my favorite books from 2012, this was also one of my most anticipated. I’m so excited that it’s finally out so everyone can start talking about it with me!
  2. The Diviners by Libba Bray: 1920s mystery/thriller with supernatural elements and romance set in New York City? There was never a chance of this one being less than a favorite for me.
  3. The Selection by Kiera Cass: One of the most surprising books I read this year. I went into it expecting something silly and unsatisfying. I got a nuanced and unlikely blend of The Bachelor TV show and The Hunger Games. I still can’t pinpoint the details but everything about this one just makes me very happy when I think about it.
  4. Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley: Another very anticipated title. Cath Crowley can do no wrong in my view. Filled with references to modern art, musings on love, multiple viewpoints, poetry and such beautiful writing. If I could bottle how I felt after finishing this book, I’d be rich.
  5. Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst: I love Sarah Beth Durst and was so happy to hear about this one. A fantasy with gods and goddesses, storytellers, tricksters, magic and a mysterious journey! And a book that manages to turn the original story upside down without ruining everything and a love rhombus? Trust me, it’s as fabulous as it sounds. (And bonus points for the diverse cast!)
  6. Seraphina by Rachel Hartman: As a reader I grew up on high fantasies. With a complex world filled with subtle language and politics (and dragons) all its own, this one fits right in with the fantasies of my childhood. The writing is beautiful and the story is exciting but I think my favorite part was Seraphina’s journey throughout the story as she learned: “We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.”
  7. Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers: Regular readers will know of my love affair with Robin’s series for younger readers: Nathaniel Fludd: Beastologist. So when I heard she was writing a YA series I was all over it even when the series premise did not sound like my usual fare. (Assasin nuns? In Brittany? In 1485?) I was so wrong to worry. With wild machinations, a protagonist who questions authority and nods to familiar mythology by another name, this one had everything I want in a book.
  8. For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund: This book (along with #12) are probably the books of BEA 2012. Aside from being much anticipated, this one completely blew me away. A post-apocalyptic retelling of Persuasion with sci-fi elements is bound to be cool. I was so pleasantly surprised when I found it was also simply stunning.
  9. Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan: A gothic tale that flips gender roles, riffs on imaginary friends, and features a plucky girl reporter? And it’s by Sarah Rees Brennan? Enough said.
  10. The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski: I went into this one knowing nothing about the book itself or its author beyond the basics. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when I found a book about parallel universes, alternate history, and family all wrapped up in a wish by the author to write a novel similar to Pride and Prejudice with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and art as continued motifs. Be still my heart.
  11. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: It’s not The Scorpio Races but very little is. In a lot of ways this is a quiet start to a series but I’m so in for the rest of the quartet and learning more about Blue and Gansey. So. In.
  12. Because It Is My Blood by Gabrielle Zevin: There are few authors I love as much as Gabrielle Zevin (and not just because she recognizes me at signings sometimes!) and few series that excite me as much as her Birthright books. There is, in fact, so much I like about this series that it’s hard to distill my thoughts on this second installment for my list except to say I love the backdrop almost as much as I appreciate that the series features a romance without being about a romance.

You can also find my list on Pinterest if you want to see all of the lovely covers.

Honorable Mentions (the books that didn’t make my main list but have kept me thinking all year):

  • Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson: This might be the last book I finish in 2012. I put off reading it for a long time because I didn’t know what to expect and I think I was afraid it wouldn’t be what I wanted. But it was everything I wanted. Dimensional and beautiful and so much more than a retelling.
  • Frost by Marianna Baer: This one was a lot of fun and I’m still very sorry it didn’t go all the way in last year’s Cybils. Alas. While it doesn’t quite stand up to a really close reading it is a lot of fun with spooky twists around every corner.
  • The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron: I hardly know where to start with this one. This book completely snuck up on me but with steampunk elements and a Victorian setting it’s not surprising that it became an instant favorite.
  • Fracture by Megan Miranda: Every time I think about giving away my copy I look at the writing and realize I can’t. I loved this one and because of it’s Les Mis references I’ve been thinking about it a lot with all of the Les Miserables movie trailers turning up on TV.
  • Born Wicked by Jessica Spotswood: Such a fun read! I’m so excited for the sequel and love seeing Jessica on Twitter. Definitely a deceptive cover for a book with a lot of depth. And feminism! And alternate history!
  • Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg: Eulberg is always aces in my book. Taking this one off my main list was an agonizing decision which is why it needed an honorable mention. In terms of personal moments this was also a big one since I got to interview Elizabeth Eulberg, one of my favorite authors (and imaginary BFF *cough*) about this title–and hopefully it won’t be the last time!
  • The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith: This one was a fun fast read but it really got me thinking. I feel like with lists like this there is always a bias favoring books read later in the year because, well, it’s easier to remember recent reads. That said this is one of the most effervescent books I’ve read (not just in 2012). It also easily has one of my favorite covers of 2012.

Buzzworthy Titles (the ones everyone else is talking about):

  • Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore: After having problems with the earlier books in the series, I’m still pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this one (and Giddon–though that is probably much less surprising).
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: I still haven’t read it! I know, I know. But every time I try to pick it up I remember at least one character is probably doomed and I just cant do it. Soon.
  • Cinder by Marissa Meyer: Honestly I read this so long ago I forgot it was a 2012 title! I enjoyed it and I love the attention it’s getting but I’m honestly a bit surprised it had enough staying power to maintain this level of attention from its pub date to the end of the year. Then again, it’s a Cinderella retelling with cyborgs and aliens–why wouldn’t people still be talking about it?!

Grave Mercy: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFeversBrittany, 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: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger, The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn, The Agency by Y. S. Lee, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury, Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner