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.

Summary
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?

Setting
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?

Characters
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 :)

Relationships
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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Recommend it to?
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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? []

The Book of Lost Fragrances by M. J. Rose

Genre: Adult Fiction
Main characters: Jacinthe “Jac” L’Etoile, Robbie L’Etoile, Griffin North
Time and place: present day, New York and Paris (mostly; there are also bits set in China & London); 18th century Egypt and France; a bit of Egypt in Cleopatra’s times too
First sentence:Giles L’Etoile was a master of scent, not a thief.
Verdict: Not much love lost between us.

Summary
In Egypt in 1799, Giles L’Etoile discovered an ancient book of fragrance formulas. One for an elixir that enabled people to find true soul mates. After he’d smelled the scent, he was never the same. The book and the fragrance have been lost, but once upon a time in the future another L’Etoile will find them and–

General impression
It seemed to me, while reading, that this book was like one of those multi-faceted bottle stoppers that Jac enjoyed playing with as a child. It has many facets and treats many aspects; the disadvantage of this is that there is way too little time to get to know each character, and this has kept me from getting emotionally involved in everyone’s fates all throughout the book.

Characters
The one character I did manage to connect to was a young Chinese artist who happens to be the next Panchen Lama. As the book opens, he is allowed to leave China on a promotional trip to Europe, and he knows this is his on chance to escape his current condition and get recognized as who he really is. It is a risky endeavor, and, naturally enough, the young man is frightened about the Chinese government discovering his plan before he is able to pull it through — living in a former communist country myself, I related with his plight a lot more than I did with any other character’s.

I could not connect with Jac in any way, sadly. Her very name bothered me, as it always made me think of Jacques (a boy’s name, pronounced Jac), and it confused me a bit at first (also, I am not certain, but I don’t think Jac can be the short form of Jacinthe, as there is no c heard in the latter). Her feelings too were quite confusing to me. Sure, she loved her brother, and I respected that about her. I also liked her chosen field of work, following the source of myths to find out how they started (I wish I could do that myself :) ). Other than that however, she struck me as less than rational at times, and I am not fond of characters who cannot think straight when need arises. One thing I did not like about her in particular was the way she constantly refused to acknowledge that she had visions of her past lives. One, there must have been a way to check whether Marie-Genevieve had been a real person, and two, even if Jac’s fear that her previous illness was coming back, and she was merely imagining things, was real, hiding it from her brother would not have helped any one in any way. I mean, here’s this amazing miracle (her being able to see her past lives) that she knew her brother expected, and she just keeps it to herself, lying repeatedly about it… why?

As for the other characters all I can say is some of them would have had potential, had they been given enough time/space to properly develop. Robbie L’Etoile is the best example for this. We know about him that he’s bi, he’s a Buddhist, he’s ever resourceful and he fights to keep the family business afloat. But all these are outside markers, I wanted to know more about who he was on the inside. The same goes for Griffin, who is also surprisingly resourceful when he needs be, but basically this (and a few pointers about his former life) is all we get to know about him — he almost feels like a prop, someone who was there simply because the heroine needed a hero.

Relationships
A central thing of the book’s was supposed to be the fact that Jac and Griffin (as Marie-Genevieve and Giles L’Etoile before) are supposed to be soul mates, having spend their previous incarnations in love with one another. Which is in itself quite a good thing, but I could not get into it. Sure, Marie-Genevieve (Jac in a former life) was clearly in love with her Giles — I believed her and I suffered with her when Giles did not return from Egypt; her story did touch me. The contemporary story of Jac & Griffin, not so much. The reason I think is that we’re always in Jac’s head when interactions between them happen, and all Jac thinks about is how she has learned her lesson with him (he was the one who left her fifteen years before) and how she will never let her guard down around him ever again. Now, of course I can understand her reasoning, and her struggle to protect herself — and yet her coldness towards him made me cold and uncaring towards him too.

Plot
There are multiple plot threads, almost all of them are related, one way or another, to the belief in past lives. Robbie wants to make sure his ‘memory tool’ ends up in Dalai Lama’s care1; the Chinese mafia wants to stop him. When Robbie disappears, Jac and Griffin are conducting their own investigation to find out what happened. And then there’s Malachai, who wants to claim the said memory tool for himself; Xie Ping, the Chinese art student who needs to reach Dalai Lama himself; there’s also thirst for revenge, and memories of previous lifetimes, all interweaving to form a complex story.

What I liked
The whole idea of being able to access past lives sounded very cool to me. I liked both the idea of soul mates (souls who found one another again and again and again) and the idea of learning from the past in order to make a better future. I don’t quite believe in reincarnation, but this book made me dream of ‘what if’. I love history, and getting to see first hand various historical events & periods sounds very attractive to me :)

I also liked a few other ideas in the text, such as there being poetry in perfume (“Poetry is the very essence of what we do.“, says Giles at one time) and some considerations about myths:

She believed she was debunking myths. Bringing them down to size. But she wound up doing the opposite. The proof that myths were, in fact, based in fact—that some version of ancient heroes, gods, fates, furies and muses really had existed—gave readers and viewers hope.

Myths are a culture’s collective dream. Small stories about individuals that, out of the thousands told, were the ones that clicked with the most people because of the patterns in our collective unconscious. As the stories are handed down, they change, grow, become more extravagant and magical.

What I did not like
I read this as an ARC from NetGalley, and as such I am aware that the typos & various casing mistakes (L’etoile instead of L’Etoile has bothered me the most) will eventually be corrected. I keep my fingers crossed that the French words will be corrected too. The mistake that bothered me the most was when Jac remembers that her brother’s nickname used to be Tourjours Droit, wanting to mean ‘always right’. Now, ‘droit’ does mean ‘right’ in French, but as a direction, so “toujours droit” (there’s only one r in ‘toujours’) means something along the lines of ‘always goes right’; a fit nickname would have been “Toujours Raison”. Google Translate agrees with me, and it saddens me to see that neither the author, nor the famous publishing house were at least vaguely curious to check it. It kinda throws a shadow on the level of documentation the author has done for the book :(

Also, as much as I like the idea of soul mates, I hated the fact that there was cheating involved — many of Jac’s reminiscences have either her or her mate (or both) married to other people. I could have had them spend time together; I could have had them run away together, unable to resist the mutual attraction between them; however, they chose to lie to their significant others, and cheat on them, and soul mates or not I was not a fan of that.

Thoughts on the title
It is a beautiful title (the reason why I picked this book up), yet I found it to be strangely unrelated to the content of the book. There is an Egyptian recipe book of fragrances mentioned at the beginning; the same book is mentioned yet again near the end. And… that’s about it :) Everything revolves around the ‘memory tool’ that Robbie has discovered; the book is mostly forgotten all throughout.

Thoughts on the ending
Disappointing. It seemed to me that Jac has taken away the wrong lesson from the past lives she get to see.
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
The current Goodreads rating is 3.98 — this means that most people like it, despite my issues with it. So, if the premises sound at least vaguely interesting to you, by all means go ahead and give it a try :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | M.J. Rose’s website

  1. I never actually got what the Dalai Lama was supposed to do with it — aren’t the Lamas chosen for their very ability to remember past lives? []