Sunday, June 23, 2013

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Imagine a medieval world where nuns are trained as assassins.  Their loyalty to the throne is absolute as they work in the shadows to protect it.  Like our own medieval times, gods and saints seem very close, much a part of the daily lives of the people.  That is Robin LaFevers' Grave Mercy .

Our heroine, Ismae, is a teenage girl sold into marriage to a cruel man.  On her wedding day, she is rescued, and passed from one priest or midwife to another until she finally finds sanctuary in the monastery of her father, Mortain, the god of Death.  There, like other daughters of Death, she learns to use her god-given talents.  There, she is trained to kill; as the cover says, to be "the wolf" rather than "the sheep", in a world of men.

But as she is sent out into that world in her role as assassin, she begins to see that things might not be as black and white as they seemed at the monastery.  This leads her to explore her faith and her devotion to Mortain, leading her to a much more personal relationship with her god.  And when she finds the one man she's ever met worth loving, the command from the abbess to kill him gives Ismae a soul-wrenching choice:  trust her own understanding of her Father's will and risk losing the only sanctuary she's ever known, or do as she is told.

One of the elements I loved about Grave Mercy was how closely the author kept to history and life as it was in medieval times.  I actually had to look up whether St. Mortain was a real saint or old god of Brittany, her setting.  It felt that real.  

Through Ismae, Robin LaFevers takes us from the powerlessness of a fourteen-year-old girl in a poor village, at the mercy of her brutal father and husband, to a strong, thoughtful woman of seventeen able to hold her own in the courts of Brittany.

Another element I loved is how well drawn the characters are.  The love interest suspects from the start what she is and shifts very slowly and realistically away from the distrust natural in how they met.  Their attraction - and love - flows very naturally as it unfolds.  Secondary characters feel every bit as real, so much so that Ismae's care and concern for her closest friends are echoed by the reader.

The political intrigue is satisfying.  Brittany's court, like every other we would imagine, is full of nobles jockeying for position.  Matters are gravely complicated by the fact that, before her ascension to the throne, the young duchess was promised in marriage to a great many princes of Europe.  And France, in a bid to bring Brittany into its own control, has appointed itself her guardian and decided it will have a say in her marriage, as well.  As each party tries to press their own claim, even to the point of murder, there is much work for the daughters of Death.

If you love rogues in your adventures and strongly historical fantasy, pick up Grave Mercy. You won't regret it.

The second book in the trilogy is out: Dark Triumph While I haven't read it yet, I'm excited to get my hands on it.  The main character is a secondary character in Grave Mercy, a friend of Ismae's who came to the monastery mentally wounded, perhaps even mad.  After she found healing and sanctuary, however, she was taught to kill and sent out again into the same world that had so wounded her before.

Her presence in the first book was so compelling I'm thrilled she received her own story.

For more about the history and world of the series, check out Robin

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