Narrowly escaping a fate worse than death in the form of an arranged marriage to a boor of a man (he hardly deserves the name), Ismae finds herself whisked away to the fabled halls of the convent of St. Mortain. A convent dedicated to the god of death seems a contradiction in terms, and there are many who fear its halls and the women who serve their morbid lord so fanatically. But to Ismae it is a refuge in the simplest and most meaningful terms. The sisters not only give her her life back, they give her a purpose and a way of channeling her pain and anger and transforming it into something bigger than herself. Trained in a variety of seemly and not-so-seemly art forms, the girls of St. Mortain long to complete their education and be called beyond the walls of the convent to embody the saint's will. The elite serve as assassins, sent by the Abbess on missions to find the doomed who bear the saint's mark, dispatch them, and send them on their way to meet their maker. Soon it is Ismae's turn, though her mission does not take the form she expects, as she is sent to the high court of Brittany disguised as the mistress of a certain nobleman close to the throne. Itching to be about her business, Ismae chafes at the constraints that inherently bind her in her role. Hounded by the various factions at court, she quickly learns she is not immune to human emotion as she struggles to discern who is to be trusted and who is to be killed.
Ah, I do love a good intrigue! Grave Mercy is winding and twisty and packed to the rafters with the kind of political maneuverings and machinations that make my little historical fiction-loving heart go zing. I know many went in expecting kick-butt action and were disappointed that the emphasis lay more on the patterns of power and deceit running rampant through 15th century Brittany. I was not one of them. While I always welcome a good girl-assassin-in-disguise smackdown (they're good for the soul), I was pleasantly surprised at how subtle a story this was. I like my smackdowns served hot with a side of internal conflict. And if the author wants to add a dash of romance to the mix, I say more power to her. Grave Mercy delivers all of this and more. It takes its time about it (in a good way), never lost my interest, and builds up to a fine conclusion, coming through with high levels of both excitement and anxiety. A favorite passage (taken from my uncorrected ARC):
Duval drops the chess piece back on the board, then holds up his hand. "The Spanish prince is too ill right now to think of pursuing his betrothal agreement, although his royal parents have offered fifteen hundred troops to aid us. The English prince went missing from his tower over five years ago and is unable to follow through with those betrothal plans. Two of the other contenders are already married, although they are seeking annulments from the pope even as we speak. That leaves the Holy Roman emperor. He is by all accounts a good leader and a decent man, as well as a powerful ruler over both Germany and the Holy Roman Empire. But he is mired in wars of his own and cannot send us aid. Further, if we betroth Anne to the Holy Roman emperor, France will call it an act of war, and we will need troops to defend the alliance."You've likely already heard the comparison, but it bears repeating. If you liked Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study, this book is deserving of your attention. It also shares a certain spiritual kinship with The Scarlet Pimpernel. I did wonder a time or two whether I was mistaken in thinking this was YA. The themes and storytelling are quite adult. But let's face it,17-year-olds were middle aged back then. The romance is so well done, creeping up slowly (and somewhat dismayingly) on both parties, and any potentially adult content is tastefully handled. There is a particularly nice parting line as well. I thoroughly enjoyed myself and call my time with this book time well spent indeed.
"Thus the plea to England for support."
"Exactly so. And we still do not know which side the English king will favor."
I stare at the board, painfully aware just how desperate the duchess's situation is. "She is well and truly under siege then," I murmur.
"That is a most excellent assessment of the situation, I'm afraid." Duval's gaze lingers on me for a long moment before he reaches toward the board once more. He lifts up a discarded white pawn and sets it in front of the white queen.
"Who is that, my lord?"
When he looks up, his eyes are so dark they seem almost black. "You," he says, our eyes holding for a long moment.
Grave Mercy is due out April 3rd.
Books with Bite review
Candace's Book Blog review
Feathered Quill review
Jen Robinson's Book Page review
Refracted Light review
The Reading Housewives of Indiana review
The Readventurer review
Wear the Old Coat review