Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?
Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.
Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
Claps for me! I have finally crossed off this book on my to-read list after nearly a century, and I’m happy all that waiting was worth it. I’ve had a crapton of perceptions before reading this book, and was worried that it wouldn’t match my expectations. But, while there were some flaws I cannot excuse, Grave Mercy turned out to be an enjoyable, satisfying read.
The story starts off with Ismae Rienne’s background, as we learn that Ismae was nearly “claimed by Death” when she was born through a severe illness, which had consequently caused a long, red scar across her back. We encounter a scene where Ismae’s cruel and abusive father forcefully marries her off to an older man, and where Ismae is whisked away to a convent which serves the god of Death, Mortain, after her wedding night. The beginning briefly but wisely introduces us to the purpose of the convent, where the assassin nuns assist in killing and carrying out the tasks that the nuns assign them to, directly from Mortain himself. This scene takes place when she is about fourteen, and then the story skips to a 17-year old, fully trained Ismae on a mission. The main journey of the story starts after she is assigned to pose as the mistress of Gavriel Duval, half-brother to the duchess of Brittany, as they travel to protect her from a dangerous impending marriage. While she assists Duval, she is under orders from the convent to keep watch over him. But, as she learns about the court and the history of her convent under different perspectives, she realizes she is truly unknown to the motives of St. Mortain’s convent and Mortain himself, caught between who to trust and who to not trust.
I think a historical fiction junkie would really dig the world-building. The mythology is influenced by Celtic and Roman history and myths, while the world itself is well thought out. On the other hand, I would definitely say the writing and pacing of the story is meant for a certain kind of reader. I’m mainly a character-based reader and am not particularly fond of politics and history-based reads, but the discussion and court intrigue in Grave Mercy was pretty interesting and understandable. It wasn’t so hard to follow and the writing was delightfully middle-English inspired. Unfortunately, the pacing is quite slow and the writing is bound to lose a few readers along the way. I actually contemplated docking 0.5 of a star or a full one even because of it, but considering my liking for the world-building, characters, and story, I decided against it. But, just a warning, if you aren’t patient and don’t like a lot of discussion, the pacing, writing, and overall story can really grate on you.
Bless the lord for Ismae Rienne. Ismae has to be one of the rare heroines in YA literature who is marketed as an “assassin”, and actually kind of does her job. From the very beginning, Ismae is focused, spirited, and determined to appease her convent and the expectations she has for herself. She will do anything to properly get the information she wants (the lengths she goes to eavesdrop proves that), and is clever and focused in her advances toward acquiring it. Throughout the book, her “assassin tingles” were intact (does that make any sense?), and her character development was consistent as well. As the story goes on, Ismae starts to investigate the truth and accuracy in her convent’s practices and orders (as they tell her who to kill) and ponders what role she plays in this fiasco, leading to some immense character development. She is constantly curious, searching for clues where she can gain some insight on the court, the convent, Duval, anything. And, in the midst of this, she happens to actually have a personality. Many people seem to think she’s boring, but her attitude is just muddled under the writing, in my opinion. Her little quirks and comments are subtle, but hilarious! I mean, just look at all these fantastic quotes!
“I comfort myself with the knowledge that if Duval ever feels smothered by me, it will be because I am holding a pillow over his face.”
“I stare at him coldly. “I do not care for needlework.” I pause. “Unless it involves the base of the skull.”
“My hand tightens on my wine goblet, and I am glad it is silver, not glass, for surely it would shatter under the force of my annoyance with this woman.”
And my personal favorite:
“Are men truly such idiots that they cannot resist two orbs of flesh?”
With that being said, my only complaint with Ismae would pertain to her jumpiness when it comes to Duval. She’s constantly startled whenever Duval touches her in the slightest, leading to a bunch of cheesy inner conversations, that consist of her describing her pounding heart and emooootions and feeeelings. It was like she forgot she was a badass or something. Tsk, tsk, maybe you shouldn’t have skipped out on that Womanly arts class, Ismae.
The secondary characters aren’t the most unique ones out there, but they fit well with the context of story and influenced the intrigue throughout the book. There are indeed many to remember and some are forgettable, but they all add a necessary, mysterious tinge to the plot.
The romance… was believable. Duval and Ismae’s relationship develops slowly, but realistically and both of them do fall into the we-hate-each other-but-are-brought-together-by-circumstance trope. But, the trope does work in this case because both of them are largely focused on their own errands until they are forced to be together (literally, considering Ismae is posing as Duval’s mistress, er, “cousin”). Their romance is developed out of admiration and respect out of one another, and it totally makes sense. While the dialogue was a bit cheesy here and there, I will say it was a well-written romance.
Grave Mercy is indeed a book you must approach with caution; if you are a lover of slower, more focused historical fiction with a mysterious vibe to it, then this is your next read. If you are a more action-oriented, character-based reader, try to be patient. But, I would suggest this book to anyone and everyone, especially someone looking for an actual kickass female assassin.