So I was kind of hard-pressed not to pick this book up when I heard it was about assassin nuns.
No, seriously, assassin nuns. Just take that in for a moment.
It is every bit as awesome as it sounds. In fact, given it is that odd and almost-impossible-to-find combination of fantasy and historical fiction, it's probably more awesome than it sounds.
Ismae is one of those characters that is hard not to root for. She manages to be strong and pull herself out of a bad situation without every coming across as either "poor pitiful me" or "I'm just that amazing," which is a hard balance to strike and to maintain. Her life before the convent is terrible, so watching her slide into life among her new sisters is enjoyable.
Also, there's a lot about poison.
If I have a real solid complaint about the book, it is that there is not enough time spent on her training. I'm not sure if I'm unusual in this regard or if I just read too many Harry Potter books as a child (the latter is impossible, of course.), but I do love watching people get a magical education, and missing what felt like so many of the details of that was upsetting.
The political intrigue was fascinating. The fact that it was both magical and very much based in fact made it even better than it would have been had it been solidly one or the other, and I was very invested in the plotline. The author did a good job with keeping me guessing who I ought to trust, and although I had figured out by the end who the culprit was, it was still a powerful ending.
The romance was decent and kept me interested, and although it was not my main draw to the book, it added another layer of interest to things for me. Ismae's occasionally idiocy regarding it was sometimes annoying, but never ridiculous and also never felt out-of-place for the person she was and the situation in which she had grown up, so it was acceptable.
I enjoyed this enough I did try to pick up the next book immediately, though the fact that it is focused on another one of the sisters delayed my interest somewhat and I have yet to finish it. It is not that I am not intrigued by her potential story (I bet it is honestly fascinating--she was a great character), but I was looking for more about Ismae, and it did not suit the bill at that point. I do need to get back to it sometime soon, because the world built (and borrowed from history) here is a fascinating one, and I'm intrigued to see what else may befall this very special convent.
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?
I loved reading this tale. I adore historical paranormal books. Saint Mortain is not one I had heard of before, but he and his Death Maidens certainly intrigued me to keep reading. Isemae is a strong and independent young woman, while it took her a while to realize this for herself it was always in her heart. I look forward to reading Sybella's story.
Genre: Historical Romance
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 549 pages
Date Read: 8/8/2015
Series: His Fair Assassin #1
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Now, I have read many historical romances during my time reading various romance novels, but I rarely read romance novels that deal with war and assassins all in one package! “Grave Mercy,” the first book in Robin LaFevers’ “His Fair Assassin” series, is seriously one action packed and intense story that I immediately fell in love with!
When Ismae was seventeen years old, she was forced into an arranged marriage by her father to the brutal Guillo, who would constantly beat her to death. Ismae then thought that there would be no way to escape this horrible life until a handmaiden from the convent of St. Mortain told her about the convent and that she could live there to escape her life of misery with Guillo. Ismae then goes off to live in the convent for many years and was taught the ways of following St. Mortain the God of Death’s will which included learning how to be an assassin and using different kinds of poisons to kill their victims. One day, the abbess of the convent sends Ismae on a secret mission to the high court of Brittany to seek out the traitor amidst the Duchess’ company and it is there that Ismae meets the mysterious duke Gavriel Duval, who is regarded with suspicion at every turn. Even though Ismae is trying to do St. Mortain’s will throughout her mission, will her love for Duval blind her from her faith in St. Mortain and the convent?
Wow! I am quite impressed with how exciting and intense this book was! Now, many of my book friends have been telling me forever to check this book out and when I finally did, I was not disappointed! Robin LaFevers’ writing is truly beautiful and mesmerizing as the story is written in an ancient manner that really captures the society of 1485 Brittany and it felt like I was experiencing this culture through the writing itself! I also loved the fact that Robin LaFevers was writing this story from Ismae’s point of view as we get to see the world of Brittany through her eyes and hear her thoughts on what she thought about her beliefs in St. Mortain and her growing love for Duval. Ismae is an extremely fantastic heroine as I was quite impressed with her assassin skills and I also loved the fact that she is a cunning character as she easily figures out what is going on in the high court of Brittany and tries to come up with many strategies to protect the Duchess from any harm. I also loved the fact that we get to see Ismae struggle with her faith in St. Mortain and her love for Duval as it made her character even more complex and I was wondering throughout the entire book about who will Ismae choose: her faith in St. Mortain or her love for Duval? I just loved Duval! I will admit that at first I found his character to be a bit obnoxious at the beginning, especially with how he was treating Ismae, but as the story progresses, we start to see more dimensions to Duval’s character as he proves to be a caring character who cares about his family and Ismae eventually and those personality quirks just made me love his character! I also loved the bantering between Ismae and Duval as it was hilarious as well as heartwarming and I always believed that these two were just made for each other!
For anyone who does not like graphic battle sequences, this book does have some scenes where people are killed in gruesome ways which includes getting shot in the head by an arrow and getting cut up by a sword and that might be unsettling for some people.
Overall, “Grave Mercy” is one book that you should definitely check out if you are a fan of lady assassins! Now, I am off to read the rest of Robin LaFevers’ “His Fair Assassin” series!
Review is also on: Rabbit Ears Book Blog