I had no idea what to expect from Grave Mercy, as I'm not usually a big fan of historical fiction. But the constant shroud of mystery, the political backstabbing and constant plotting, light fantasy elements and a forbidden romance completely captivated me from start to finish!
The plot starts off deliciously slow as we begin to learn about the world Ismae lives in and the convent she has just sworn fealty to. Led by a group of strongly independent women, Saint Mortain's teaches Ismae everything she needs to know to be one of Death's handmaidens: stealth and knife combat so as to kill any man showing Death's marque; feminine artistry to lure her victims into a false sense of security; and the chemistry of poison making, so as to be able to kill a man with merely an aroma or a touch. Having always been strong-willed, the inclusion of these skills has made Ismae into a fiercely independent young woman. Her blood-lust is contagious, and experiencing her first kill was exhilarating. She is loyal to a fault, blinding following the nuns' teachings, until she meets Duval.
Being the first man Ismae has spent any length of time with since joining the convent, Ismae finds herself constantly on edge around Duval. He brings her to court, where she must learn the ways of the royals and how to best interact with the nobles in order to learn their secrets and hopefully find the traitor amongst the Duchess' party. As they spend more time together, Ismae begins to see a side to men that is completely foreign to her, having only ever experienced abuse by their hands, and is shocked when she realizes that while she still distrusts Duval, she also has feelings for him.
"I am well aware it could all be an act. An act designed to earn my trust. And just like some poor, dumb rabbit, I have stumbled into his snare."
Duval begins to question the convent, and their sources of information, as to why a man must be killed in order for her to have served her god. He plants tiny seeds of doubt in everything the nuns have taught her, and she begins to question their methods herself.
"I pray to Mortain for the insight and clarity to see my way through the thicket of loyalties and alliances that surround me. I pray for the wisdom to discern His will in this matter. And most of all, I pray that I am not falling in love with Duval."
Their romance is developed throughout the entire book, but it didn't overshadow the main plot. And while Ismae does fret about her growing feelings and what the convent will think of her, she also doesn't let her feelings get in the way of her purpose at being at court.
I loved all of the drama and intrigue at court, and watching the various political manoeuvres in the hopes of finding the duchess a suitor that would both benefit her country and give her a chance for happiness in her marriage. Whenever the book turned its attentions back to which suitor she should choose, I grew a little more sympathetic for the duchesses situation as the suitor with the most troops (and thus the best choice to help defend Brittany from the invading armies of the French) was definitely not someone I would ever want to marry.
"She sits, rigid and tense, looking pointedly away from him, her face pale. She looks like a young child trying to pretend a monster from a hearth tale has not just sprung to life beside her."
Like all of the somewhat minor characters, he was written extremely well; I'm cringing just thinking about him. LaFevers did a wonderful job of adding enough personality to each character to make them all interesting in their own way, and combined they truly added a lot of enjoyment to my reading experience.
From start to finish I was completely captivated by Grave Mercy. I was excited for Ismae to begin taking on assassination missions and I was hungry to solve the mysteries at court. A little forbidden romance, some unique abilities added in a fantasy element that I liked, and a great cast of characters makes me eager for the sequel!