LaFevers' writing is thin with overbearing prose and ripe with authenticity and vibrancy...
(Updated: May 17, 2012)
Next to paranormal romance, there is nothing better than delving into a historical fantasy, as we are instantly whisked away to a time existing, in all its imperfections and awfulness and beauty, in mere written recordings begun by clumsy hands grown steady over the centuries and brought to life in a way in which readers, with our animated and colorful imaginations, can connect with in literature and with its transcription into wondrous fiction a sheen of newness and a magnum of possibilities come alive behind our eyes and breathe in that space in our minds that allow us to see with lightly shadowed clarity. Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers bears a world unfamiliar to our questing minds and slowly, subtly paves a path for us to travel there in our rapt minds, hanging on to each word for more tells that will reveal to us abounding depth into this century in which Ismae lives. Ismae is both a source of mystery and a cause for sympathy, and we are a bit wary to feel the latter because how helpless can this rumored cunning handmaiden of Death actually be? But, LaFevers fences with our reluctance and we must withdraw and surrender to compassion, as we sink into this painful glance into the torturous past that brings Ismae to the place she now stands on a sorrowful wave of blood and cruelty and revulsion.
Ismae is adept at persuasion, and she convinces herself, with us faithful in her conclusions, that she is not weak-willed, vulnerable, and insecure in the person she has become. And while she isn't the first, she is wrong about the second, and shaky on the third layer of her conception of herself. Strong and powerful, she can bring any foe to his/her knees, to pleading for mercy, to swift and unexpected death. Once she has a target, the unfortunate person doesn't have a prayer, no chance at redemption. Ismae's past and her soft heart make her vulnerable to warmth and gentleness and care, particularly when those things are gifted to her by a man she can give no trust and sets her pulse to pounding. Her confusion as to the alignment of her heart lends a small sense of naiveté to the sired-by-darkness and eerily quick-minded assassin.
Her recent assignment as the passionately vigilant eyes and ears of the convent in service of St. Mortain, patron saint of death, proves to be most difficult and plenty dangerous. Every member of the court is riddled with secrets and the issue lies in discerning which are harmless and which harbor ill will and the potential for the Duchess' downfall. From graceful, shrewd ladies and power-greedy noblemen interested in securing their own ends and not the welfare of their young sovereign, many and few could be the puppetmasters setting up the danger looming closer and closer with each passing day. With all the thrill of solving a murder mystery, this mystery is masked by the gloss of rich and powerful men and women and the twin meanings hidden beneath their cold politeness and hungry eyes which bring immense satisfaction with each clue we uncover. In a place where trust is a luxury and flattery is a weapon, Ismae acts as keen and capable protector, intelligent strategist, and merciful servant, a shoo-in favorite and an all-around impressive heroine.
A tentative romance blooms and rinses clean any smears of doubt toward the loyal and secretive Duval, a man who shares Ismae's innate, though initially well-buried, compassion and engages her thoughts, urging her to ask questions and forgo blind obedience. Mistrust is the first to vanish between them, and then burning attraction and sweet compassion, understanding, and gentle concern are the next follow, and before long love is bouncing uncertainly between them until they settle their questions and reluctance. And with their love, their country, and their friends dipping into peril with no escape, the story jumps from gradual unveiling to fast-paced action with little warning. There is sadness, loss, and hope revived, and though the danger isn't behind them by the end, love, born in spite of hateful first impressions, springs dreams of a bright and secure future for these two characters we've come to adore immeasurably.
Originally posted at Paranormal Indulgence, 4/9/12
Fans of deadly female assassins and slow-burn, sweetly fulfilling romances are or will be fans of Graceling by Kristin Cashore and Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder. Still looking for more? Interested in dagger-wielding, battle-savvy thieves in disguise? You might want to read Scarlet by A. C. Gaughen.
Welcome to 15th century Brittany, a country holding down a tremulous peace with France and it's protectors are searching for a means to keep their homes and their sovereign safe. With this comes a game of deceit brewing at court and among the lords and ladies filling it betrayal and treason sit heavily in the air. Who is friend to the Duchess, to Brittany, and who is not? The intrigue and slow unraveling of lies and spies along the subtly spun web of deception and duplicity fascinates the mind and lures it into yet another game of puzzle-solving. Frauds are abundant, and Ismae, an eerily well-trained assassin working in the name of St. Mortain (or Death), with her heart vulnerable to a certain brisk, protective, and warm Breton working fiercely to secure his sister's crown and her competent, death-dealing hands quick to whip out a crossbow or a dagger and aim true, meticulously untangles shocking truths about those she has blindly served and the "allies" with whom the Duchess seeks advice. LaFevers' writing is thin with overbearing prose and ripe with authenticity and vibrancy, as scrupulously depicted as Ismae's methods for scrounging facts and separating it from illusions of loyalty and done so with beauty in its simplicity.
Grave Mercy was everything I hoped it would be. It reminded me of The Game of Thrones with its setting and back story. When we first meet Ismae she has just been bought by a pig farmer to be his wife, she is 14.
Ismae's life was never simple, no one was ever kind to her until she was saved on her wedding night by a monk and a kitchen witch. She is whisked away from a life of beatings and hate to a convent of women who will care for her. They will also train her to be an instrument of Death.
The story is full of intrigue and deception. You never quite know who is being truthful and who is working only to benefit themselves. What I loved most about this story was the fine lined it walked between pure historical fiction and fantasy. The best part is the nun assassins are real!! The elements were so carefully blended that it all felt possible and real. At times it was hard for me to remember that the characters were so young especially Anne, the soon to be Duchess they are all trying to protect.
The character development was strong and while you might not always agree with their choices you could understand them. Ismae grows from a girl who was always told she was evil and hated men for what they did to her to someone who learns to love herself and others.
This book is a fantastic read for lovers of good literature. The plot keeps you guessing, the characters are well rounded and the overall story is a rich blend of historical fiction and fantasy.
Because of the cover (pretty dress), I was really excited about this one. Then I saw a lot of mixed reviews around the blogosphere and put on my skeptical cap. Thankfully, I'm in the group of people that just ate Grave Mercy up and looked around for more. It's kind of funny, because I started reading this and Candlewax at the same time, the latter of which was compared to Cashore; I ended up giving up on Candlewax and think Ismae is way more Katsa-ish.
To that end, let's discuss Ismae, shall we? She may be a nun of sorts, but she kicks ass like a serious mofo. She's the kind of girl who hides a crossbow in her skirts. A Crossbow. No joke. Of course, she doesn't live in a society that respects strong women. She is married off at a young age to a brute, but refuses to accept his abuse. She would have been killed, but was rescued and sent to a convent where daughters of Mortain (the death god/saint) are trained to kill. It made me so sad to watch her trade being controlled by her father to being controlled by the convent. Watching her mature throughout the book was a pleasure.
Duval is completely amazing. I love him and would not mind having one of my own. He's so supportive and caring of the people that he loves and so distrustful of anyone else. He's incredibly intelligent and focused. He reminds me a lot of the hero from Touch of Power, who I also adored. His relationship with Ismae grows in a very natural way. He is so freaking swoon-worthy.
Grave Mercy is quite long. Reading it took me three days, which, given my record, is like forever, at least with my primary book. The length has turned some readers off, but I, personally, never felt like the book dragged at all. One complaint was that we didn't get to read about the training of the killer nuns, but I was okay with missing out on that.
Robin LaFevers is definitely a new favorite author for me. I want book two, Dark Radiance immediately! Apparently, it's going to be about Sybella, rather than continuing Ismae's story. Although I love Ismae, I think I approve of the decision to move to a different character. I wonder if we'll get Annith's story in book three. I hope so!
ORIGINALLY POSTED ON http://shelversanon.blogspot.com
Thwarted arranged marriages, female assassins, life-or-death stakes, a reeeeeeally awesome love interest, AND a killer dress-and-crossbow combo on the cover? Great heavens to Betsy, I'm in love.
Ismae is one genuine kick-butt female. She has to be, really. Her mother tried to abort her, and though Ismae survived, she was left with a hideous scar that runs diagonally across her back from shoulder blade to hip, marking her as a daughter of Death. No, literally, a daughter of Death. This makes her a freak, and a scary one at that, a fact that her father and other townspeople use to make her life a living hell. Her father even tries to marry her off to a loathsome, brutish pig farmer at the age of fourteen, which is when she is rescued by a local herbwitch and taken to the convent of St. Mortain.
Of course, that's when LaFevers makes a three year leap in time, because what's cooler than watching a girl go from awkward, scared teenie-bopper to fearsome assassin? Skipping the in-between time to get to the big reveal.
Ismae is wicked fierce. She can kill a man in countless ways, from using a thin cord to garrot him, to a crossbow bolt to the forehead, to a knife to the heart. She's pretty handy with poisons, too, seeing as one of her gifts is that she cannot be poisoned. Oh, and she can sense when a person will die by seeing (or sometimes smelling) them, and she can often tell how a person will die, thanks to the black smudge of death St. Mortain leaves on the body.
No wonder she's chosen to take part in protecting the young Duchess Anne against both the invading French army and overbearing suitors intent on stealing her duchy. Given her own background, protecting a girl against being traded like a piece of meat is right up Ismae's alley. Unfortunately, her ticket of entry into court is by posing as the duchess's brother's mistress, a prospect that does not thrill Ismae in the slightest, given that the art of seduction was one course that she barely passed and that said brother, Gavriel Duval, might himself be a traitor.
Where to begin... First, the characters. Wow! Usually, when I read a book, any hint that said book might only be the first in a series makes me cranky. I want a completed story, beginning, middle, and satisfying end. Books that stop half-finished in a blatant ploy to garner interest in a coming sequel irritate me. Yes, even Hunger Games got my goat a bit. But thanks to the characters Robin LaFevers created, I was inwardly begging for a continuation halfway through the book.
Ismae can be a teensy bit flat at times (yes, dear, you hate men, we got it), but I loved her nonetheless. Gavriel Duval is my new YA fiction crush (more on that in a few). And those supporting characters! Magnificent. Their personalities and characteristics were not overemphasized or overlabored in an attempt to hold our interest. They just stepped on the page and could be. Duchess Anne reminded me of Bitterblue from Graceling - older than her years, tough, wise, but still hopeful. Crunard, Rieux, Sybella, and Madame Hivern were satisfyingly three-dimensional. I fell in love with Beast from his first introduction (really, in his own, supporting-character way, he even beats out Ismae for my affections).
All the characters were great because they weren't stereotypes or stock characters, even the ones who only appeared for a few pages here and there. They had secrets and motives and desires and dreams and stories, and I wanted to learn so much more about each and every one of them. And, given that this book is all about treachery and intrigue, I loved that I truly believed that I couldn't fully trust a single soul.
The plot was good and fairly crawling with loathsome baddies. Well, mostly loathsome (see what I said about characters not being stock). The big baddie reveal wasn't quite as unexpected as I had hoped, but I appreciated the tension leading up to the revelation, as well as the motives behind the baddie's actions. I did have two notes of disappointment, but I'll get to that in my paragraph of caveats near the end of my post.
Oh, and the romance! Swoon! Ismae and Duval have that delicious love/hate/I-don't-trust-you-as-far-as-I-can-throw-you thing going on, and it so works. After all, Ismae isn't sure Duval isn't really working against his sister the duchess, and Duval can't be sure that Ismae isn't really on orders from the convent to kill him and/or someone he loves. Yummy, yummy tension. What I like most, though, is that they clearly have reasons to fall in love, reasons that have nothing to do with looks. Ismae mentions Duval's grey eyes a few times, but I honestly couldn't tell you other distinguishing features, or even how old he is. His looks aren't the point. His character and integrity are. Same for Duval's attraction to Ismae. She's smokin' hot, but that wasn't the point. There was no lust at first sight. There was love over months.
I do have a few, teeny caveats. First, the whole Death as a god/saint thing. I understand the appeal of twisting convention on its head here, but I personally was uneasy with the death-worshipping. Part of it is because of my own personal beliefs ("Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?"), part might because of the timing (Easter week is an awkward time to be reading about Death as a good guy). I was expecting some big twist regarding the very nature of Death/St. Mortain, and there was a twist, just not the one I was hoping for. Again, my personal hangup. It's likely that this will not bother most people.
Second, there's a moment near the end of the book where Ismae... well, that would just be a spoiler. Suffice to say, it's lame.
Sorry for the super-long review, but this book was so freaking exciting, and I'm waiting on pins and needles for LaFevers' second installment.
***Points Added For: Nun assassins, poisons (love me some poisons), detailed characters, crossbows, Beast, believable and swoon-worthy romance, intricate and unexpected motivations.
***Points Subtracted For: De Lornay (both his lack of depth, comparatively speaking, and his duration), certain twists not living up to my expectations, that really lame moment that I mentioned in the spoiler.
***Good For Fans Of: Graceling by Kristin Cashore (and presumably Bitterblue, though I haven't read it yet); Terrier (and subsequent sequels) by Tamora Pierce.
***Notes For Parents: No language that I can recall (the word "bastard" is used multiple times, but only in the literal, illegitimate sense); several squeamish seductive encounters; at least two attempted rapes (both not graphic and ultimately unsuccessful); one non-explicit sex scene (tasteful fade-to-black employed); violence (not Hunger Games level, but still); a few blush-worthy conversations (who knew French women were known to rogue their nipples?).
Amazing characters (even the minor ones!), thrilling plot, zippy premise.
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