The Plot: Brittany, 1588. Ismae, seventeen, was rescued years ago from her former life as the abused daughter of a turnip farmer to enter the service of the god of Death at the Convent of St. Mortain. As it is explained to her, the Christians call the old gods saints. Ismae is already marked, physically, as a daughter of Mortain and it turns out she has other natural talents, as well. She has a choice: if she wants, she can remain at the convent and be trained as a handmaiden of Death, learning all the ways that one can kill in service to Mortain. Ismae just has to promise obedience to those who serve Death.
Ismae says yes; and now she is embarking on her first tests, her first missions as an assassin. Mortain, whether saint or god, is there to protect Brittany and punish those who betray her. With neighboring France hungry to expand its borders, especially now that the old Duke is dead and his heir is a twelve year old girl, there are many who bear the mark of Mortain and who deserve death. Ismae just has to find them; and she finds them by following the orders of her convent.
An assassin’s job is clear: identify the target, confirm that he’s been marked, perform your task. Done. Ismae is prepared and eager.
Until Ismae is ordered to go to the court of the child duchess, to confirm the convent’s suspicions about who is a traitor to Brittany. Her guise? Mistress to a well connected man. Is Ismae, the farmer’s daughter, in over her head? Has the convent prepared her for court intrigue? And what happens when she does the last thing anyone would imagine — and begins to not only develop feelings for the suspected traitor, but also to question to convent’s wisdom.
The Good: You know, “nun assassins” is enough, isn’t it? (Or is it assassin nuns?)
It’s even better than that; because Grave Mercy is more, much more, than just a clever concept and quick book talk.
This is Ismae’s story, and she begins with her marriage three years before to a man as abusive as her father. She begins with the poverty and dirt of her early years; and how she was physically marked by the poison that her mother used in trying to get rid of Ismae before her birth. Once at the convent, she meets two other novitiates around her age, Annith and Sybella, and together they are trained by the sisters of St. Mortain. Having seen Ismae’s abuse, and the condition Sybella is in once she is at the convent, one can understand just why she agrees to enter the sisterhood of assassins. Not only that, but there are signs that are unmistakable that Mortain is real and powerful, signs beyond Ismae surviving poisoning as an infant.
Ismae’s background, then, is that of a peasant first and then of a protected schoolgirl. Yes, a schoolgirl who has been taught to fight, to kill, to poison; who has been taught “womanly arts” and history, but, admittedly, sometimes Ismae skipped those lessons. Still, all of that is lessons, and Grave Mercy takes Ismae to places beyond the classroom. It quickly becomes clear, at least to the reader, that while Ismae has been well trained as an assassin, the lessons on spying and intrigue were not as well learned. That is part of the reason that Grave Mercy is so terrific: Ismae is strong and bright and clever and talented, yes, but she is not flawless or all knowing or perfect. She is real.
The setting for Grave Mercy is the late sixteenth century, in a Europe where battles and wars were being fought for both independence and to create nations. Honestly, my knowledge of this time period in this geographical area was slim to none. The good news is that I needed no prior historical knowledge to follow along with what was happening, what was at stake, and who people were. The bad news is I may have Googled a bit to find out more about the history of the Duchy of Brittany and spoiled myself. Don’t do what I did, kids! The author’s website has some of the real history found in the book without giving away too many spoilers.
Yes, this is a work of historical fiction; it’s also an action adventure book (nun assassins, remember?) full of intrigue and poisonings and crossbows and knives and battles. It is also a romance, and because I didn’t read many reviews before beginning Grave Mercy (just enough to know a lot of people were loving it) I was a bit surprised to find that out! Surprised in the best possible way because I loved the romance: a bit star-crossed, with two people committed to doing the right thing and unsure of whether the other person was quite trustworthy. Seriously, Ismae is the narrator and so of course we love her, but would you trust an assassin raised by nuns who is convinced that everything she does is guided by the hand of a god and that she never makes a mistake?
As the title indicates, this is the first in a series. But GUESS WHAT. You know how I love when books in a series are related to each other, rather than continuing one person’s story? Like Finnikin of the Rock and Froi of the Exiles? THIS IS LIKE THAT. ONLY WITH NUN ASSASSINS. The second book is about Sybella; the third will feature Annith. YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW HAPPY THAT MAKES ME. Well, I guess using all caps gives it away. Not only do I look forward to learning more about Sybella and Annith, I get to learn more about Ismae by finding out how Sybella and Annith see her. Plus, what this means to you, dear reader, is that you can read Grave Mercy knowing that Ismae’s tale has been told in this one volume; and even if the story goes on, as it will be told by Sybella and then Annith, Ismae’s story is complete. As a reader, I like knowing that, while I also like knowing I will, no doubt, get a peak at Ismae in the future books.
Because nun assassins. Because Brittany in 1588. Because all the real-life people that are in it. Because of Ismae. Because of Gavriel (and I cannot believe I held back on saying how much I love Gavriel.) Because Mortain, whether as saint or god, is real. For all these reasons, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.