Grave Mercy

Grave MercyYou know those days/weeks/months that are so bad you just want to go to bed, read a book, and block the world out? I’ve had one/all of those. So, despite having more deadlines than I can actually keep in my head and the reminders of which fair nearly inspire a full-blown panic attack, I took to bed for a day to, well, block out the world.

Choosing a 566-page book for said retiring to bed to sulk is admittedly irresponsible. It’s one thing to bunk off on work and study. It’s another to do it with a massively long book.

Still, I don’t overly regret my decision. I’d say I didn’t regret it at all, except my barely suppressed panic at the amount of work and study I’m hugely behind on prevents me from doing so. But in terms of the book’s content, I don’t regret my decision at all.

Grave Mercy is the first in Robin LaFever‘s the His Fair Assassin young adult series, a series (I’m hesitant to say trilogy because although there are currently only three books, I hope there will be more) that essentially features assassin nuns slash handmaidens of death.

Grave Mercy’s opening pars are rich with detail, giving us backstory and historical setting and context all in one. From these pars we gather that Ismae, the protagonist, is alive but for her mother’s abortion attempt. The attempt has left Ismae’s body with physical scars and her life with emotional ones. That she survived, we’re told, is a sign she’s both a miracle and the daughter of death itself.

We’re in medieval times, if you hadn’t already guessed, with women subjugated and difference regarded with stigma and superstition. Ismae, for instance, endured a beatings and exclusion as a result of being deemed an evil miracle before being sold off into forced marriage to a violent pig farmer. It’s in escaping from said husband in the opening pages that Ismae’s story—and the book itself—is kickstarted.

Mortal HeartSpirited to a convent for girls such as her (each of the novitiates has had personal poor experience with men prior to joining the convent), Ismae both makes friends and learns to mix poisons, perform combat moves, and (sort of) master the art of seduction as tools to draw on to ferry people to the afterlife once they’re marked by death.

‘Girls! Enough chatter, unless your plan is to talk your victims to death!’ she and friend Annith are castigated as they are caught whispering when they’re supposing to be practising their hand-to-hand combat slash grip escapes. But the nuns aren’t all that stern, and the convent and convent life is captivating.

One of this book’s many strengths is that almost all of the characters are richly envisaged. None more so than arch nemesis slash love interest Gavriel Duval, with whom Ismae finds she must work as well as spy upon. So noble, intelligent, and witty, he has firmly shunted Edward (Twilight) and Dimitri (Vampire Academy) aside as my new favourite fictional male character.

Duval (as we come to refer to him) and Ismae have plenty of banter. When she asks if he found out any information from spies who’d tried to kill them but that they’d in turn killed, for instance, he drawls: ‘No, they had no standard or signed note of instruction stuffed neatly in their purses.’ ‘Have you received no orders from the convent?’ he later asks, to which she replies no. ‘Perhaps your crow is not working properly,’ he mutters.

But there are many other impressively wrought characters. Duval’s unhandsome friend ‘Beast’, for example, refers to her as a lady when they meet. ‘I am not noble born,’ she says, embarrassed, to which Duval answers: ‘Every maid Beast meets is a lady as far as he is concerned.’ ‘Only those who do not run away from me in terror,’ Beast quips. ‘I like that he does not apologize for his looks,’ Ismae notes, ‘that he throws them down like a gauntlet.’

There are also many more tender moments throughout the book that catch your emotions (and your throat) unawares: ‘I hear there are many carrots where you are going,’ Ismae softly tells her horse as she’s forced to help it leave this world.

Dark TriumphGrave Mercy is based on true historical events (something that’s revealed in an author’s note at the end of the book rather than at its beginning—possibly to enhance curiosity and suspense). Its plot pivots on a 12-year-old girl inheriting the duchy of Brittany and being stalked and betrothed to at least a half dozen of potential suitors.

It’s a gripping tale told grippingly well, hence my immediate jumping online to order the next two books in the series (gah, somebody please tell me it’s a series and not a too-short trilogy). I’ve since commenced the impatient wait for said books to be shipped to me. And yes, thanks for asking, even these few short days feel like an eternity. But it’s my own silly fault. I should have trusted my instincts when I ordered the first book and just ordered them all at once.

I’ve no idea how I’ll manage to read books two and three among my overdue deadlines and study without some catastrophic (lack of) results. What I do know is that when it comes to deadlines/study versus these books, the books will win hands down.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.