I first heard about Robin LaFevers’ new YA release, Grave Mercy, a few months ago and was intrigued by its premise, which involves an order of assassin nuns. Based on that, I thought it was set in a fantasy world. When I learned that it was in fact set in our own world, in medieval France, I was more skeptical. How would LaFevers set assassin nuns in real France without it seeming unrealistic?
Alongside the real history, LaFevers sets up a secret, fictional one in which the people of Brittany have continued worshipping a pagan pantheon under a thin veneer of sainthood. The assassin nuns belong to the convent of St. Mortain, who is based on a god of death.
It’s still not quite realistic, but it’s so much fun that you won’t mind. LaFevers’s fictional history is rich with traditions and myths, doled out to the reader at a natural pace rather than infodumped. The lore of poisons is particularly fascinating and had me just as spellbound as it did the heroine, Ismae. And the real history is just as rich as the parts LaFevers makes up. Grave Mercy is set during the time of Anne of Brittany, who inherits a great duchy at the age of twelve and becomes a prime target for fortune-hunting men. She’s a compelling character in her own right and her court is rife with plots and intrigue.
Our heroine, Ismae, is another girl who resists the plans of controlling men. Her brutal stepfather sells her into marriage to an equally brutal husband, but she escapes his clutches when he recoils in fear from a mark that denotes Ismae as the daughter of St. Mortain. She is taken in by Mortain’s convent and trained as an assassin. Grateful for her rescue, Ismae is all too happy to serve the convent elders without question.
When she is sent to Anne’s court on a mission, though, Ismae begins to question things. She’s no longer sure she can trust what she’s been told, or that her god works precisely as she’s been taught. She goes through a fantastic character journey as she tries to figure out whom she can really trust in a tangle of competing agendas, and what her patron god really wants from her.
The romantic subplot works well too. Instead of an instant soul mate connection, Ismae and her love interest start out with bickering, which slowly develops into bantering (and quite funny bantering at that) and then, gradually, the two begin to trust one another in a setting where trust is hard to come by.
Grave Mercy was so much fun to read. The heroine is fierce and resourceful, the romance is believable, the world-building is enthralling, and the intrigue is… well, intriguing. Whenever I wasn’t reading it, I was wishing I was reading it, and couldn’t wait to get back to it. I’m shocked to find that it’s listed at 560 pages. It felt short to me, and I wished it were longer! It ends on a good stopping point but leaves plenty for Ismae’s friends Sybella and Annith to do in the next two HIS FAIR ASSASSIN books.
Grave Mercy is aimed at young adult readers, but has plenty to satisfy older readers too, especially if you liked Maria Snyder’s Poison Study, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon.