Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy was advertised fairly heavily on Shelf Awareness, and it looked intriguing. I’m always up for a story about a girl who kicks butt.

The Plot: It is 1485, and Ismae is grateful to be rescued from a forced marriage by the nuns of St. Mortain, the God of Death. The nuns give her shelter and teach her to be an assassin in the service of Mortain, a role she plays with pride.  But when Ismae is sent on a mission to the dangerous high court of Brittany, she finds that nothing is quite as it has seemed–especially her target, the handsome Gavriel Duval.

The author: Robin LaFevers has written several books for younger readers, including Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos and the Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series. Grave Mercy is her first young adult novel.

Spoiler Alert: I try hard not to drop any spoilers in these reviews, but this time I felt like a thorough discussion of the book’s pros and cons necessitated a bit of revelation. Read on at your own risk.

Why It’s Awesome: The plot moves along at a brisk pace, and it’s littered with interesting ideas.  The “marques” of death that grow or fade according to a person’s intentions for the future had me intrigued, as did the idea of the group of misfits turned to deadly priestesses.  Ismae is a fun heroine to read about: a woman who looks sweet and mild while actually being smart as a whip and armed to the teeth.

Gavriel is a well-done romantic hero.  Ismae’s descriptions of him are admiring without being fawning, and their relationship grows naturally. Gavriel is almost the only character who doesn’t try to make Ismae into something — he simply admires her for who she is.

Why It’s Not Awesome: Grave Mercy suffers from trying to be too many things at once.  It is a fantasy/historical fiction/romance/political intrigue with a healthy dose of feminism thrown in, and as a result of this juggling act it fails to be really good at any of those things.

The setting of medieval Brittany had me intrigued–it’s a place and time I had happened to do some research on myself, a fascinating little corner of history that isn’t often written about.  So I was disappointed to find that, aside from names, there wasn’t a lot of Brittany in the book at all.  The medieval setting and the non-medieval-female behavior necessary of a saintly assassin co-exist uneasily, and the setting may actually have worked better if it was simply a fantasy country based on Brittany.

I also found Ismae’s internal struggles hard to identify with. LaFevers tries to set up a story about a woman learning to trust her own instincts, coming to rely on herself as she realizes that the authorities she has trusted are not infallible.  That’s all well and good, but we are not given enough time at the beginning of the novel to establish either Ismae’s character or her trust in the nuns of St. Mortain.  Since the rest of the book is based around a gradual erosion of that trust, this is a serious problem. The early chapters have a rushed feel as LaFevers hurries us toward the main plot, but without enough exposition Ismae’s eventual rejection of the abbey loses its power. Ismae goes through all the steps of an interesting heroine, but her story lacks emotional punch.

The romance, though well-written enough, feels a trifle tacked-on.  It was fun to read but didn’t add much to the overall story…and the brief sex-as-a-cure-for-poison subplot stretched even my belief.

The Final Judgment: Excellent story materials, but not well-executed.

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