Upon reading the first pages of this book, my mind immediately went through some thoroughly unpleasant flashbacks to The Hunger Games.
A note to all authors: if you're going to write a story in first person present tense, don't make the story sound like it's being narrated in hindsight. The reason for that should be painfully obvious.
Even so, I cannot help but whisper, "I accept," mostly to myself. Or so I think--until I see Duval nod once, then put his heels to his horse.
"Or so I thought" is almost always a retrospective reflection. It doesn't work here. A far too common mistake with first person present tense narrators is that they're too impartial and too rational. They seem to be able to objectively evaluate stuff right in the moment, and that creates a disconnect between the narrator and the present happenings that prevents us from suspending disbelief.
This book also has a habit of summarizing stuff, like
It is a full week before I see Sybella again.
She first appears among us at the dinner hour.
How do you know that it would be a full week before you see Sybella again? How do you know that she "first" appears at the dinner hour? Why not just narrate the scene out?
I'd be really interested to know the reason behind this current trend of having stories written in present tense. It almost never works and always sounds like it would be easier to read in past tense. Having said that, it wasn't nearly as bad as The Hunger Games--there was a merciful absence of those goddamn sentence fragments.
Still, the action scenes kinda suck.
He reels back, giving me just enough room to get my long knife between us.
But my movements have unbalanced me again and I am pitched from the saddle. I use the momentum and throw myself forward, landing neatly on my feet. I lunge to meet the bandit.
He does not see my knife in time.
That last sentence sounds waaaaay too much like Ismae's telling the future. It also sounds like it's happening in slow motion, enough for Ismae to analyze her every movement, which would work in past tense or third person but definitely does something weird here. It resembles a glorified duel more than it does a tense fight. Or maybe that was what LaFevers was going for? Honestly though, it's still pretty lame.
Also, there was waaaaay to much of an over-reliance on adjectives and straightforward statements to describe Ismae's reactions to things. It makes everything sound really, really dry. Especially as this is in present tense, it seems the purpose would be to immerse us in the story, not repeatedly throw us out of it by having Ismae calmly state whatever she's feeling at the moment.
Slowly, she smiles. It is even more disturbing than her bound wrists.
Oh come on, book. If you want something to be disturbing, the least effective route you could possibly take is to tell me it's disturbing.
"You wanted them for questioning." The reverend mother's flat tone does not reveal whether she feels remorse for having disrupted his plans.
Or you could just leave the last sentence out and let the reader makeup their mind about the dialogue.
Crunard spreads his hand in invitation. "Will you share your suspicions with us?"
"Not at this time." Duval speaks quietly, but his refusal is shocking just the same.
Another problem that keeps popping up is forced tension. We wouldn't need to be told that "his refusal is shocking" if there's enough context provided to give the dialogue emotional weight.
I will be honest, I was less and less distracted by this stuff as I got further into the story. There's an interesting plot here, one I think is fairly well planned out and ties up without too many loose ends. I also appreciated LaFevers's attempts to humanize some of the villains in this story, particularly Crunard and Madame Hivern. It actually ended up making them a little more complex and interesting than the main characters. It's nice to have characters who make decisions that we can sympathize with, even if they're a little shady.
The romance I didn't mind nearly as much as I thought I would. Mostly because my personal idea of a typical YA love story is two characters meeting on page 10, falling in love on page 11, followed by 300 pages of dead-horse-flogging because the romance has nowhere to go after they've already fallen in love. It helps that the relationship between Ismae and Duval is that of a political alliance, and the story makes it pretty clear that physical attraction =/= love. I also don't find it that far-fetched that Ismae would fall in love with the first man who seems to respect her. The scene with Ismae revealing her scars to Duval did a lot to add credibility to their relationship. Having an insecurity for most of your life, then finding acceptance at the moment you least expected, is not a small thing.
The portrayal of sexuality was a bit of an issue though, because I think after all that angsty setup of the beginning, with Ismae's arranged marriage and attempted rape, it's a copout for her to be all "mwahaha, I can triumph over men with the power of my breasts!" Does she seriously feel no discomfort that she has to use her body in such a way to get what she wants? A better route to take would be to have this happen slowly. I would have liked to see the actual process of her trying to overcome her fears, or at least see some sort of emotional conflict...because although I have zero personal experience I don't think coming to terms with one's sexuality, is really as simple as "are men truly such idiots that they cannot resist two orbs of flesh?" I mean, that's such a strangely disconnected attitude to take toward one's own body. There's also the fact that Ismae claims to have been starving and under the threat of sexual assault for most of her life, so 1) why is she sexually attractive and 2) can her sense of power over men be at least portrayed as superficial, not some kind of glorified Girl Power?
The historical basis for the plot was something I was impressed with. I always admire someone who has the imagination to take a timeline of historical events, streamline them into an organic story, and still stay faithful to the real-life historical happenings. I wish LaFevers applied that imagination to the smaller details of the story, though. The dialogue sounds overly pompous, sort of like the "default" courtly witty dialogue that YA loves to resort to when writing political intrigue. Lots of *tense* verbal maneuvering, much less of the active kind, except for by the bad guys. The details of the setting were pretty vague, difficult to distinguish from the average medieval fantasy descriptions of fancy dresses, elaborate bedrooms and stone walls. Nothing like the exquisite, high-class culture portrayed in Crown Duel. *sigh*
And that's really all I have to say about Grave Mercy. Wow, my review ended up way longer than I thought it would. Anyway, in the end I did enjoy it as a form of entertainment, so 3 stars for that. Just...first person present tense really needs to go away. Pretty please?