"review" · fiction · recommend · sci-fi/fantasy · series · young adult lit

{book} grave mercy

Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at 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 be willing to take the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany, where she must pose as mistress to the darkly mysterious Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Once there, 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?-jacket copy

You know those teen/young adult novels featuring a strong heroine coming of age during an hour of great intrigue and world-altering events? Most (if not all) feel they must have a romance, coming to terms with sexuality being a key ingredient to bildungsroman; and for the sake of presenting a strong heroine they would play the romance as a secondary part of the plot. Unfortunate for some of these stories, the text finds the romance much more interesting and cannot seem to keep it out of focus. Grave Mercy takes its cue from adult fiction and suggests, why not do both? Authors like Nora Roberts, Elizabeth Lowell, and Jayne Ann Krentz write kick-ass female protagonists taking on the traumatic, the criminal, and the steamy swoon-worthy romance all the time. And with Grave Mercy you needn’t worry about the more explicit nature of “not-young-adult” books—or even other young adult books, or Teen lit…I get to this later.

So if you like historical political intrigue that is twisty but not so complicated as to be indecipherable, Grave Mercy is good. If you like a good bildungsroman of a traumatized girl learning to find her own path, her own calling—ditto. If you like a classic romantic tale?—welcome. If you are intimidated by a 500+ read, don’t be. Grave Mercy’s balance and thus accessibility to such a wide range of audience makes it an easy Christmas gift—for girls.

I picked up Grave Mercy because I was fascinated by the idea of Death having daughters, their being assassins and what the author will do with this in a historical Brittany setting. Now, I know there will be a discomfort with this concept of a god/saint of Death as it follows through. If you have a good grounding in mythology and old lore, you may have less an issue as Death does not necessarily mean Devil or Satan or wholly villainous and handmaidens needn’t mean black witch. Assassin, of course, remains discomforting, which works beautifully as one of the major conflicts in the novel. The author also uses the uncomfortable perceptions of Death (and its cult) to create tension, especially when Ismae comes up against such a sainted figure as Gavriel Duval turns out to be.

Ismae is fairly typical in that despite her rough upbringing and her training as an assassin, she is naïve about most things. Then there is the part where Ismae skips some of her classes—excused, of course—and she is just young and raised in a convent. The effect should be comedic and necessary to the development of the character. And Ismae does become more sure of herself, learning, earning a more commanding presence.

I think Gavriel Duval is mid-twenties to Ismae’s 17 when they meet. His station affords him a handful of extra years as well so he gets to play the older and wiser who also happens to be a loving and loyal person who has worked out his issues with his saint and is as virginal as he can be without risking his masculinity. He comes dangerously close to being nauseatingly perfect—as I think about it, he is, but while reading, he wasn’t—which is disgusting that LaFevers pulled this off and I must re-read at some point to figure out how she does it. It likely has to do with a) I have yet to be vaccinated against a classic romance hero, and 2) the narrative choice. Grave Mercy is a first person limited to Ismae. Her earliest observations cue the hero (Gavriel) and we are, afterward, as subject to his charms as she is.

Grave Mercy is restrained and somewhat prim on sexual matters—but then, so is our narrator and the setting. The allusions are strong enough to get warm or repulsed depending on the situation. I have to say that it does this better than Divergent, which gets kudos for tempering the sex, too.

I am eager for the second book in this His Fair Assassins Trilogy, not because I can’t get enough of Ismae and Gavriel, the historical setting, or its political conflicts, but because of Sybella and Beast. LaFevers teases the reader with a very interesting supporting cast; and having them also relieves us and author of the pressure of having to extend out that famous instantaneous physical response romances harbor. I appreciate the unapologetic nature of the romance, especially as LaFevers balances it well enough within her ambition for historical adventure and intrigue.

LaFever imagines a gorgeous 15th century Brittany, transporting her reader with ease. Though, really, she makes everything easy. Drama does not seep into hip-wading melodrama; the action carries us along through world-building, multiple conflicts and characters with very little trouble. She uses shorter sentences, which at times make the “I”s and “My”s dizzy, but it moves the story and balances the action and introspection. The narrator never addresses the reader, but is conscious of them, a storytellers device I don’t see enough and was excited to see.

The opening pages are gorgeous. There was a lovely simile the text couldn’t seem to do without a bit further in, but there were few awkward moments and a reminder that clever segues aren’t needed to carry the reader along. The premise, the simplicities in the story with their added fascinations, the characters, the setting, and an inability to anticipate everything compels the reader.

I am a huge fan of LaFevers’ Theodosia Throckmorton series and I am impressed with how differently the author has styled herself in this new series. She goes by R.L. LaFevers for Theodosia, so I had to verify the connection. And yet, that which is so so delightful in Theodosia is what makes Grave Mercy so successful: LaFevers’ finesse for historical detail; including lore and new perspectives on the “old ways;” and unorthodox, clever and daring female characters.


I picked up Grave Mercy for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril (RIP) and it works: Death is a figure; it has the dark, dank, and creepy; it features an intrigue. It could’ve been darker, more disturbing, but the author minds an audience and I like that she doesn’t feel the need to follow things down the darkest or most impossible holes.

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Hardcover, 549 pages (that fly by). Library book (but if N has her way, we will be owning this one).

shorter and sweeter reviews:

Deanna @ Polishing Mud Balls review

Melissa @ Book Nut review

4 thoughts on “{book} grave mercy

  1. Great cover! Glad you enjoyed it, it sounds like a really good offering especially in the midst of what looks to be a glut of similar sounding books. Whenever I look at the teen section of a bookstore it seems to me to be such a gamble because nothing stands out as they all look and sound the same. So I’m thankful to see good reviews, to find books by authors I’ve read and liked, etc. to help narrow down the choices.

    I also like hearing that there are teen books that can work in romantic relationships without having to be too graphic or focused on the sex. I think there is a fine line that can and should be walked with this stuff, especially given that books seem to often be read by people much younger than the target audience. I’m also heartened when I hear about books with strong female protagonists that still have romantic inklings. I think sometimes adult stories err on the side of not being able to unify both themes, as if for some reason it isn’t possible to be both romantic and be a strong woman.

  2. I am with you on the difficulty of negotiating the Teen section, the do all look and sound the same. I very much rely on reviewers and return authors (or their blurbs on unfamiliar author covers).

    The edge we give Teen/YA makes me all the more grateful for the talented writers in juvenile/mg fiction–as well as those few authors who find their own edge. N doesn’t have to read Teen to find good writing–if anything (sadly), her chances hardly improve.

    Finding that unity is tricky, this one skitters close to the edge in the dynamic it sets up but LaFevers is a confident writer and is more than capable of creating that strong heroine and romantic.

    1. I agree. I have such a back and forth idea about what “appropriate” reading is and it is yet one more reason I’m thankful my daughter is grown. I know I certainly read “inappropriate” things when I was a young man, most often just because that happened to be in the science fiction books I was reading which were not marketed to the YA crowd and occasionally for the thrill of reading something “naughty”. As an adult it isn’t the “naughtiness” that concerns me so much as the wrong idea I think some teen fiction gives kids. I tend to go back to the overall excellent story King Dork by Frank Portman that I read, but never reviewed, in 2010. (actually I listened to the audio, which had fantastic narration).

      Anyway, what stuck in my craw about Portman’s book is that the two sexual interactions had by the male protagonist and a couple of female characters were very much of the “all girls live for giving guys oral” variety and were very self-centered and guy-centric. Which was actually pretty accurate for the narrative voice of a teenage male telling his own story, but which also bothered me because of the message I felt it potentially sent vulnerable kids reading it. I’m all about promoting a very healthy view of sex for kids at whatever age(s) is appropriate for said kid because I think kids grow up with too many hang ups about what can be an incredible part of life. That being the case, the portrayal of “romance” in King Dork bothered me immensely.

      By the way, read and reviewed an excellent children’s picture book yesterday that you and N would probably enjoy. The Insomniacs by Karina Wolf and the Brothers Hilts.

      1. my younger sister paid more mind to what I was reading as a teen than my parents, so when she hoped to nail me for reading smut, I was sure to only leave around the least sexy harlequins I had on hand. 🙂 I agree with you in that it really is about having finding the healthier portrayals of relationships, sexual or no, to at the very least balance out the glut of less healthy stuff. Or even some of the “romance” to balance the harder edged stuff, though I think “romance” can contribute to unhealthy attitudes as well.

        In Grave Mercy, Ismae, if not all the female characters, are or have been badly used/treated by men, which makes Gavriel (and his friend Beast) so swoon-worthy. The female’s abused states and distrust of men begs for a man who can be respectful of female abilities without feeling threatened and act out because they are not looking for a world without men, just a world with good men in it (at least for some of the female characters. I kinda think the abbess could do without any male figure other than Death).

        I will make a point of checking The Insomniacs out! thanks for the rec.

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