Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Book Review - Robin LaFevers's Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
Published by: Houghton Mifflin
Publication Date: April 3rd, 2012
Format: Hardcover, 644 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Ismae almost died before she was born. Her mother tried to purge her from her body because she knew that Death was Ismae's father. All her life she has been marked by death with a dark wine stain from her shoulder to her hip. On the day of her marriage to a man she neither loves nor likes, he learns the truth and attempts to kill her. The herb witch that tried to end her in the womb now rescues her and sends her to the convent of St. Mortain. There Ismae learns that she is cursed, but with gifts from Death himself. Trained to be a handmaiden to Death she learns all the subtle arts from poisons to seduction, though she's not too keen on the womanly arts. She becomes a finely honed tool, an assassin for Death himself. Her first two assignments go rather well and the men are sent to their graves. The deaths of these two men though are inopportune for Brittany's government who is trying to stay an independent Duchy from France. As atonement for the inconvenience the convent has wrought the Duchy's young ruler, Anne, and her bastard brother, Gavriel Duval, Ismae is to accompany Gavriel to court and aid the country, while also serving the sometimes conflicting needs of the convent.

While at court, Gavriel is worried that he has been saddled with a loose cannon. Ismae seems to have no desire to confide in Gavriel, or ask his permission, willing to kill whomever Death has marked, whether it's convenient to Gavriel or not. That can be a bit problematic when the bodies start piling up. But Ismae has spent the last few years cloistered away from the world and never in her wildest dreams thought she would be embroiled in the affairs of the Breton Court and this new world view is shaking her beliefs. She wants to follow her orders from the convent, kill those who bear the mark, but through Gavriel she starts to wonder if the convent has things quite right. As Ismae is drawn deeper and deeper into the intrigues of the Breton Court and the Privy Council she learns that Anne is a ruler worthy of her protection and Gavriel my be a man worthy of her heart, but perhaps all that she has been taught is wrong. Perhaps the handmaidens of Death aren't there to bestow vengeance, mayhap they are to grant HIS mercy and the convent is misguided in their mission. If only St. Mortain would show her where her true destiny lies.

Back in 2011 after helping Robin with some Goodreads questions, I am after all a librarian in good standing on the site, as a thank you she sent me an ARC of the first book in her new series, Grave Mercy, as well as some swag. The "His Fair Assassin" series, with the HIM being Death, is set in Brittany in the 15th century and as Robin told me she was "curious to see what [I] think, since it is SO different from Theo!" The Theo in question being Theodosia Throckmorton, a budding Egyptologist whom Robin created and I adore. Yet while Robin is right that this series is "SO different" from Theo I wouldn't say they are worlds apart. Like Robin's other creations, including Nathaniel Fludd, there's a perfect melding of character, history, and that spark of magical realism. All these elements combine and conclusively prove that a great author is able to write in any genre and on any subject matter as long as they have a clear authorial voice and interconnected themes that come through no matter what they are writing about. Robin has that voice. It changes with the characters and the time periods she's writing about, but there's a way she grips you from the outset. She has an engaging writing style that doesn't make it feel like you're fighting the text to get from word to word and paragraph to paragraph.

Each and every time I've picked up one of Robin's books I'm surprised that when I finally, blearily, look up from the page that an hour or two or three have passed, sometimes it's even five in the morning and shouldn't I be asleep by now? But I just fall in, even reading Grave Mercy for the third time I felt like I was reading it for the first. There's a flow to the writing and you are gone. This flow is even more impressive when you think about the fact that this is, in essence, Historical Fiction. I read a lot of Historical Fiction and it can easily be bogged down with overly archaic language, too many historical events, and plot points given to you like a lesson at school that you hated the first time around and has you scrambling back and forth over the text trying to remember the minutiae of each plot and counter plot. But Robin did an amazing job of making the people, both historical and fictional, real. I fell for Ismae and her evil Hogwarts convent and then fell all over again when Gavriel showed up. These characters became friends to me. I was invested in their lives and with getting them together! Jane Austen had it so right with Darcy and Elizabeth, now just make one an assassin and the other an upright young man, and you just wait for them to realize the truth that, though they are so different, they are so right for each other.

Yet this investment in the book wouldn't work if not for Ismae. As many of you know I tend to do "dream casting" of books I read. The reason for this is twofold, I have always loved film and television so therefore when I can see an actor or actress so clearly as a character I will "cast" them in that role in my head; the second reason is sometimes the character is a little too broadly defined by the author and therefore I use my dream casting to fill in the blanks. I am making up for their shortfall. So when I stumble on a character who requires no casting I want to stand up and applaud. Here is someone so fully formed, so perfectly complete, no matter how imperfect they are, that I see them instantly in my mind's eye. This has literally only happened to me a handful of times, and I could name each and every occasion should you wish for me to do so, but for my purposes here, know that Ismae is one of these magnificent creations. She has such a unique voice, such a forceful presence, that if she were to step right out of Grave Mercy and into my library I would know her immediately and greet her as an old friend. I would then have her watch The Princess Bride with me, because near the end of her story she's channeling some serious vibes from that holiest of holy book and movie.

Re-reading Grave Mercy I started to analyze why this book connects to me and to the YA audience so fiercely and combined with the serendipitous release of Mary Queen of Scots everything fell into place. I've been complaining to my friends about how much everything about the new movie Mary Queen of Scots annoys me, from the fact that Mary somehow has a Scottish accent despite being raised in France to the two monarchs meeting when they never did. All this had me pining for the CW show Reign. Who would have ever thought that this over the top show with magic and a Medici and Nostradamus would, in it's final season, more accurately portray the last days of Mary Queen of Scots than a big blockbuster movie? I never would have! But the show, despite it's silliness, at it's core has that same spark that Grave Mercy possess. Which made me wonder, why am I drawn to courtly drama? And I realized, it's a metaphor for growing up. Being taken from a small, secluded world, be it a convent where you're training to be an assassin, or say a small Catholic school with only twenty students in your class, and being thrust into this world where you don't know the rules, be it the Breton Court or high school, this resonates with readers because they've either been through it or are currently embroiled in it. I finally get it! I get why I love this book and how it connects to me!

What I also get is how this book exposes the hypocrisy of the church. There is such a disconnect between the love Jesus preaches and the way his followers carry out what they think are HIS commandments. The complete incompatibility between God's word and what the church preaches. So much hate and vitriol comes from religion and this is why, despite going to a Catholic school for eight long years, I can not get behind organized religion. This is a big problem facing Ismae. She was raised at the convent of St. Mortain to be used by the convent to carry out Death's plan. But she realizes that the convent is fallible. She's not sure if they are promoting their own agenda over that of St. Mortain or if they truly believe that they are acting under HIS aegis, but the more Ismae sees of the world the more she realizes it isn't black and white, it isn't life or death, there are shades of grey, there is the possibility for forgiveness. Just because you are marked for death doesn't mean that it gives the convent license to kill you, it means that death is near and a decision has to be made. To see Ismae come to the realization that death isn't just vengeance, that death can be mercy, that death can be a blessing, that shatters her world, opens her eyes, makes her see the hypocrisy of what she has been taught and that the world is so much more than she could ever imagine. "There are more things in heaven and earth..."


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