In 15th century Brittany, Ismae is the unwanted daughter of the god of Death and the wife of a turnip farmer. Handed over to a loveless marriage, she escapes to the convent of Saint Mortain where she is trained as an assassin, taught to see the god's will and to kill those he has marqued, not matter who they are. But her second assignment will test all her skills and change her understanding of the world forever.
I think this one had been on my to-read list for awhile and then I started seeing a ton of positive reviews for it. Naturally, when my library got a copy, I scooped it up.
It's a thick book, but a quick read. Design elements are mostly to blame for the thickness--it's a largish font size and is double-spaced. I'm not sure what the reasons for those choices are (I've seen the same thing in other books recently), but they actually make it harder for me to really enter into the story.
Those visual quirks aside, it's still a pretty quick read with the plot, for the most part, zipping right along. It pulled me in very quickly and kept me engaged until the end. And it certainly checks off a number of my boxes. The world is wonderful, obviously well-researched but also not tied too closely to the real history. It's one of my favorite periods, the tipping point between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I loved the moment when the characters discuss the aid that France gave to the current English king and I realized that king was Henry VII.
Ismae, our main character and narrator, is fantastic as well, blending toughness and vulnerability in a way that made me cheer for her, want to shake her, and want to hug her. Sometimes within the space of a few pages. Despite her fantastic parentage and her unusual training and skills, she comes across as a real person. She's not always sure of herself, but she's also playing a part and she often acts confident despite her anxieties. I found her personal journey in coming to terms with her past and her service to her god moving and nicely depicted.
The treatment of religion was also well-done, I thought. I'm often nervous that books set during periods seen as strongly Christian will either demonize or minimize the role of religion in peoples' lives. Here, the weaving together of the old and new and the way both were treated seemed right and appropriate. The romance was lovely. No instant attraction here! Duval and Ismae come to a slow appreciation for each other and a firm reliance on the other's skills and loyalty. There are political intrigues, beleaguered rulers, strong female friendships, and an honest and yet respectful exploration of personal faith.
In short, what more could I ask for?
And yet, while I sincerely enjoyed the story, I never absolutely fell in love with it, in the way that so many others seem to. Partly this was due to the fact that the sentence level writing was perfectly fine and serviceable, not clunky or unnatural except once or twice. But I wanted more than serviceable. I wanted rich and resonant, because that's what this story and these characters are. There's nothing wrong with any of it; La Fevers is clearly a good writer. But I wanted to be pulled in and enthralled and, on that level I wasn't.
I think that also contributes to a vague impression I have of the book being a little bloated. It's not so much that I can point to any one instance where I think something should have been cut, but on the other hand, I didn't feel amazed by how much was packed into a relatively short book. Here, Grave Mercy is definitely suffering from comparison to A Coalition of Lions, which I recently re-read. I know this isn't fair, but it's also true.
Despite these reservations, I did really, really like and appreciate this book. I don't hesitate to recommend it to fans of Megan Whalen Turner, Elizabeth Wein, and anyone else who enjoys courtly intrigue, romance, and a rich world and cast of characters. I'll definitely be reading the next two.
Book source: public library
Book information: Houghton Mifflin, 2012; YAWebsite for the series
Also, if you click on the cover image above, it'll take you to a high resolution image, which I like more and more as I look at it. (The dress, the way her hair makes it look like she's just spotted a threat on the horizon.)