It’s been a while since I’ve read some good historical fiction and Grave Mercy made me realize just how much I miss that. In fact, I enjoyed it so much it’s now on my list of favourite books. At 549 pages it’s a large novel, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I didn’t want to put it down, but with ONE chapter left to read, we had to leave for a Christmas function. Bah! That’s tantamount to medieval torture! I can honestly say I couldn’t think of a single thing I disliked about this book. Not one! But there was so much I loved about it.
For starters, I loved the protagonist, Ismae Rienne. Through some very undesirable circumstances, Ismae finds herself at a convent dedicated to the service of the god of death, St. Mortain. She trains as a handmaiden of Death, and devotes herself to killing according to Mortain’s will, which is directly tied to protecting her home of Brittany. While Ismae is an assassin, the author gave her certain believable vulnerabilities that humanize her. I enjoyed the evolution of Ismae’s character, seeing her go from blindly obedient to someone willing to choose for herself, even if it means making sacrifices or angering those in power over her.
The plot of Grave Mercy surrounds protecting the young duchess of Brittany from dangerous suitors and the threat of a takeover by France. Although the fate of the duchess is central to the plot, I still always felt this was Ismae’s story. This book has lots of political intrigue and betrayal, which I’ve since learned is based in fact, and yet the author didn’t bog the story down with boring historical details. The tangled politics make Ismae’s role all the more difficult because she doesn’t know who to trust. Even the integrity of the convent of St. Mortain comes into question, meaning that Ismae must try to discern the truth for herself and also how to act on it.
Integral to the story is Ismae’s relationship with Gavriel Duval, which is complicated to say the least. The tentative alliance between them begins as a convenience and is constantly strained. As if it’s not awkward enough that she has to pose as his mistress in order to gain access to the Breton court, Ismae has to decipher his true motives. He presents himself as honourable, but there are others who label him untrustworthy and question his loyalty to the duchess of Brittany, who happens to be his younger half-sister. Because of the mystery surrounding Ismae’s role as a handmaiden of Death she can’t be entirely open with Duval about the secrets of her sect, which naturally makes him suspicious of her. There’s also the fact that Ismae’s past has made her wary of men. As life at court becomes increasingly dangerous and threats to the duchess increase, Ismae must decide whether to truly join forces with Duval.
I loved the relationship between Ismae and Duval, because there was nothing straightforward or easy about it. Both characters are stubborn, intensely focused on their goals, and often abrasive, which makes any bit of tenderness between them all the more enjoyable. Robin LaFevers did an amazing job of weaving their relationship together with the plot. It wasn’t an appendage to the main plot, rather the two were inseparable. And as to whether Ismae and Duval become inseparable, you’ll have to read the book yourself to find out. ;)
The setting of Brittany in the 1400s is fascinating, as is the blending of the old gods with Christianity. There’s a broad cast of characters, most of whom readers will be suspicious of at one point or another. One particular scene toward the end of the story had me choked up, as Ismae has a personal revelation about her service to Mortain and acts upon that revelation.
Apparently the next book in the trilogy will be about a different character from the convent. While I’m eager to read about that character as well, I can’t help but hope that Robin LaFevers continues to write about Ismae, as I felt there could be plenty more to her story. If you like historical fiction, political intrigue, dark brooding love interests, and a strong female protagonist, definitely give Grave Mercy a read. You won’t regret it!