Two word: assassin nun. I know, I know. It sounds like one of those mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or Amish vampires, but Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, first of the YA His Fair Assassins trilogy, actually makes this strange pairing work.
Set in a fantasy version of 15th century Brittany, Grave Mercy follows 17-year-old Ismae, daughter of Mortain (Death) Himself, who is rescued from an arranged marriage with a much older man and given refuge in a convent dedicated to Saint Mortain. There, she learns the art of carrying out Mortain’s will through the arts of poison, weapons, and much to her consternation, seduction. Fortunately, she has friends in fellow initiates Annith and Sybella. Ismae takes to her education eagerly, excited to prove herself when the opportunity arises. For her third mission, however, she’s going to have to learn patience and the ways of court intrigue in order to figure out who is betraying Duchess Anne. Fortunately, or perhaps not so fortunately, she is assigned to pose as the mistress of Gavriel Duval to gather intelligence and navigate the social labyrinth—but what happens when the charade gives way to something more, and she is torn between her duties and her heart?
I have to say, the cover art made me intrigued enough to pick this up: it features a young woman in a Game-of-Thrones-esque red dress holding a cross bow with a castle in the background, with the question “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” written across the top. With its fantasy-like cover and promise of ass-kicking protagonist, I gave it a shot. Its premise of a protagonist serving as Death’s handmaiden was an enticing one, and the tools at Ismae’s disposal were delightful, ranging from a headpiece with poisoned pearls to a bracelet containing a thin garrote to a crossbow small enough to slip beneath her dress and, of course, the requisite daggers and stilettos tucked about her person.
Of course, the brutality of the weaponry is only matched by the machinations of court. In a world where even the highest-born woman can be bartered off in marriage for political gains, Ismae clings to the rare opportunity for power Mortain’s covenant provides her. Naturally, she is out of her element when her own feelings develop, but I was expecting that, and while such plot developments usually annoy me, this one didn’t, perhaps because the world-building and intrigues were fascinating enough to compensate, though I would have enjoyed seeing a bit more of her friendships with her fellow initiates. I did, however, love seeing her growth from naïve pawn to independent agent.
This is not necessarily going to be a good fit for all readers of young adult fiction; first and foremost, it is a book targeted toward female readers, between the significant romance subplot and the occasionally heavy-handed empowered-girl theme. Readers of fantasy will enjoy this one; indeed, unlike many readers, they will hardly blink at the 500-page-plus commitment. It is suspenseful and dramatic though not always fast-paced, and readers hoping for a lot of breakneck action and violent deaths will be disappointed as Ismae learns to wait and when to provide mercy.
The fantasy-historical feel to the book reminded me of Cynthia Voight’s novels of The Kingdom, and the premise of a young woman trying to find her own way in a hostile world that affords her few rights reminded me of Sheryl Jordan’s The Raging Quiet. For readers who want more of LaFevers’ world, the second book of the trilogy, Dark Triumph, follows Sybella, and the conclusion, Mortal Heart, centered on Annith, is due to be released in November of this year.