March 26, 2012

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

My first reaction to hearing about Grave Mercy was that I liked the cover and its mixture of historical figure and modern font. At the same time, I dismissed it somewhat in my mind, sort of preemptively lowering expectations. I adore historical fiction. We have a long history together (pardon the pun). However, I sometimes wind up feeling as though the YA historicals I read have been watered down, so to speak. But the hype surrounding this one has been so adamant (check out all those stars rolling in), that I went ahead with the huddled masses yearning to read free and requested in on NetGalley. Author Robin LaFevers has quite a few middle grade books under her belt, including two separate series. Grave Mercy seems to be her first full-fledged YA novel, and it is the first in the His Fair Assassin trilogy. If you're not currently in the mood for a trilogy, it does look as though this one will follow different characters in each installment. Having read it, I would say you get some good closure at the end. I also still like the cover after the fact. And at the same time, I think more lurks beneath the pretty cover than meets the eye.

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."

"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.
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.

Grave Mercy is due out April 3rd.

Linkage
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

23 comments:

  1. Hmm well you've caught my attention with this review. I've basically been ignoring a lot of the hyped books I must admit, but this sounds like it could be interesting.

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    1. Amy, I often do the same thing. When I found out the time and place for this one, I went ahead and gave it a shot.

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  2. Oh, I'm posting my review of this title tomorrow. Our feelings were similar. I really love political intrigue and was pleasantly surprised by how much historical foundation there was for the story. I'm so glad that you enjoyed it as well.

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    1. Nice timing! I felt the same way. Loved the in-depth history behind it all. I've read some on Anne since then and what a fascinating figure she was.

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  3. The plot sounds exactly like The Assassins of Tamurin, have you ever read it? It looks like it's not in print anymore, but you would really love it.

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    1. Yen, really? That's very interesting. I'll have to look into a used copy or check my library. Thanks for the tip.

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  4. Poison Study AND The Scarlet Pimpernell? Need. This. Book.

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    1. Melissa, I know. It has the good vibes.

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    2. Anonymous9:34 AM

      Poison study and the glass series are my favourite books!

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  5. Poison Study? Must read it soon then.

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    1. Poison Study is so good!!

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  6. I've got an ARC of this one and can't wait to dive in! Thanks for the review.

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    1. Ooh, don't wait! I'm excited to go buy my own physical copy. :)

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  7. Lovely review, Angie! I agree with you wholeheartedly. I was actually shocked to see some of the more negative reviews for this one, but I think you pegged it in that some people were expecting more butt kicking and less intrigue in this one. Personally, I loved the political machinations; it's the type of thing I've come to love most about fantasy set in a historical fiction, which I also love. After reading some of the history, it actually seems that the plots were much thicker in real life than LaFevers was even willing to tackle in this book! I agreed about the YA thing, but LaFevers did have a wonderful blog post this last week explaining her reasoning to market the His Fair Assassin series to teens.

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    1. Thanks, Heidi! The negative reviews are still making me shake my head. I don't get it. I was swept away in all the possibilities, all the subterfuge. Historical fantasy really can be so awesome. It makes me very happy to see it's alive and well in YA, too. I'm gonna go read her post now.

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  8. "Ah, I do love a good intrigue!" YES! This was one of the best things, besides Duval, about this book. Your review is great, definitely captures all the best things about this book. I never thought I would like Historical fiction, but Grave Mercy might have changed my mind.

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    1. Candice, hehe. Duval does have a bit of the swoon-worthy about him, doesn't he? If you're ever looking for some hist fic recs, I've got a few. :)

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  9. There are so many things in your review that make me happy but especially two, being A. That it doesn't end on a massive cliffhanger and B. That it is good for fans of Poison Study, one of my favorite books of all time! I just started this and have only read about 100 pages but I am really enjoying it and can see why it has gotten such rave reviews!

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    1. Bookworm, isn't it such a relief to not have a cliffhanger over your head? I really did like the end of this one. And it absolutely reminded me of POISON STUDY. Made me want to go re-read it, as a matter of fact. :)

      Really happy you're enjoying it so far.

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  10. I'm going to be checking into The Scarlet Pimpernel...this is the first time I'm hearing of this and I loved Grave Mercy and I love historical fiction :) And yes, many historical YA books have fell flat with me :( Which is why sometimes I just have to read an historical romance :) Great review and thanks for the mention!

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    1. Really? Oh, then I definitely recommend it. I feel safe saying if you enjoyed GRAVE MERCY, you are likely to love THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL. :)

      Do you have any good historical romance recs for me? I'm always on the lookout.

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  11. I really did enjoy this story. I loved that the heroine was so tough and yet there was a softer side to her as the book went on. The fantasy elements were great and I loved reading about the court. I always enjoy books where the court is part of the story, it just adds so much drama!

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  12. Robin LaFevers is definitely a new favorite author for me. I want book
    two, Dark Radiance immediately! Apparently, it's going to be about
    Sybella, rather than continuing Ismae's story. Although I love Ismae, I
    think I approve of the decision to move to a different character. I
    wonder if we'll get Annith's story in book three. I hope so!
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