Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Genre: Young Adult
Main characters: Ismae Rienne, Gavriel Duval
Time and place: Brittany, 1485
First sentence:I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb.
Verdict: Exceeded my expectations.

Ismae was born with a red scar on her back, marking her as a daughter of Saint Mortain, the Patron Saint of Death. Her childhood is tough, as her ‘father’ (her mother’s husband) treats her cruelly every time she gets the chance. When Ismae comes of age, she’s sold for three pieces of silver to a man who thought her little more than a piece of flesh he owned. He too beats her savagely, catching the eye of a local ‘rescue group’ that smuggles Ismae away from her husband and on to a new life.

She’s taken to the convent of St. Mortain, where she is given the choice to become an assasin, doing the Saint’s work. She happily agrees and for the next three years she is trained in everything related to killing. The time for her to put her knowledge to good use arrives when Gavriel Duval, one of the duchess’ most trusted people, is thought to have switched sides. Ismae is then send to his court, to live with him, discover his secrets, and kill those who have displeased the Saint in any way. She is of course glad to have the opportunity to help the convent and serve Mortain — but then it turns out the convent is not as infallible as she thought; could she still follow their orders, even if they’re wrong, or should she follow her heart?

General impression
I loved this book! Thank you NetGalley for making it available to me :)

It has a bit of everything: a bit of fighting, poisons, a bit of romance, a bit of suspense, a bit of court intrigue — what’s there not to like?

It is the 15th century, and the small duchy of Brittany is surrounded by enemies. The old duke has recently died, and his daughter is set to succeed him. In order for her to quell the various plots to take her throne, she needs a husband, one with a large enough an army to scare her enemies away. Unfortunately, there seems to be a shortage of eligible husbands, and young Anne’s time is running out. If we add to that the fact that her father has promised her hand to a particular count, a despicable person that would stop at nothing to force the duchess into respecting that promise, it becomes obvious that Anne’s circumstances are nothing to be envious of. At least she has a handful of resourceful people on her side — and even Saint Mortain has sent an emissary to help Anne keep her throne — but will that be enough?

Ismae is a study in contrasts: she’s a cold blooded killer, and good at what she does (I was glad to see that the author did not skirt around this side of her — now and then people need killing and Ismae kills them, simple as that; it’s who she is and what she was trained for, anything else would have been a cop out). And yet Ismae has nothing of the viciousness and brutality that come to mind when one thinks ‘killer’. She obeys the saint of Death, her rescuer from a lifetime of grief; she hates men, as every man she met has treated her cruelly — but first and foremost she cares about doing the right thing in any given circumstance. She is my idea of a ‘badass’ character, and I really liked her1, so much so I am disappointed that the sequel will be about Sybella (whom we have hardly met in this book), and not her.

Gavriel Duval is the very image of a knight in shining armor. When his half sister, now duchess Anne, was born, their father has tasked young Gavriel with protecting her, and this has been the core of his being ever since. As the book opens, he’s a skilled fighter, and also a redutable plotter — Anne owes her throne and even her life to him. But he is also more than that: he is a good man and a good friends, gruff at times yet treating people with kindness when kindness is called for. He isn’t anything if not persistent, and he never gives up, no matter how hopeless the situation. I admired that about him, and I liked him as a character overall. It goes without saying that I am disappointed not to see him in the sequel too2 :)

It comes as no surprise that Ismae and Duval, joined by their common cause, ended up caring for one another as more than comrades at arms. I thought the author has done a great job developing this part of the story, and this is probably one of the reasons I liked this book as much as I did.

As previously stated, Ismae deeply dislikes men, one of the reasons she chose to became an assassin. She starts out less than fond of Duval — but then he does something that shatters her defenses: he treats her kindly. Ismae, raised by a bruttish father and then married off to an equally abusive husband, is not equipped to resist it, and she falls for him. We are not told what made Duval fall for her (the story is told from Ismae’s point of view), but i am guessing he found irresistible the same things I have liked about her: the fact that, while shes no damsel in distress, quite the contrary, she also has a vulnerable side, and I am guessing that side appealed to the protector in him :)

Another thing I liked is the way they never beat around the bush — once it was obvious they both have feelings for each other, they both acknowledged it, becoming a couple as much as the situation allowed. They are both strong, sensible people, and I was happy to see them choose the most sensible path — having one chase the other might have been fun, in a way, but it wouldn’t have been as believable given the sparks that fly all over when they are together.

Other things
I have found quite interesting the mythology that the author has created. There “were once the nine old gods of Brittany but now [they are called] saints“. Tradition asks that (male?) children are dedicated to one of these saints, and it is very dishonorable for one not to follow the path appointed to him.

The saints themselves act in a way that reminded me of those in the Greek mythology: they seem to be able to make themselves seen whenever needed, and they are also able of siring children (I guess that happens often enough, as Ismae, daughter of Saint Mortain, elicits nothing more than mild interest from others). These children are more than mere mortals, inheriting at least one special ability from their parent — Ismae for example is immune to poison and able to see ‘the marque of Mortain’, a dark mark that appears on people in their last days.

I also liked how the author chose to justify Mortain’s interest in Brittany’s (and the duchess’) fate:

He feeds off our belief and worship much as we feed off bread and meat and would starve without it.

Mortain needs Brittany unaltered, so the people there could keep their belief in him and the rest. This — the gods needing people, and belief, in order to survive — is one of my favorite themes, and I was glad to find it in this book too :)

Thoughts on the title
I liked it ever since I first saw it (I like the ambiguity of the term ‘grave’ here), but it was only somewhere near the end of the book that I understood what it referred to :)

Thoughts on the ending
Any thoughts I might have had on the ending are overwhelmed by the sadness that it’s over. :)
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  1. Ages ago I read Graceling and almost hated it, because the heroine was so perfectly adept at fighting that no one could ever harm her, which rendered all fighting scenes boring. If Katsa felt to me the wrong way to write a skilled female fighter, Ismae feels to me like the opposite: the very way I would have written such a character had I been able to write. She’s very skilled at fighting with different weapons, but she is just as vulnerable to weapons as anyone else; this kept me on the edge of my seat whenever she did something risky, and I was way, way more engaged in the story than I was with Graceling. []
  2. It seems to me that the author has constructed these interesting, complex, promising characters, and now she’s just going to discard them in favor of others — but I wanted to see more of them! Can you blame me for being disappointed? []

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