Friday, July 13, 2012

Happiness is...a good book (Summer Reading edition #15)

Grave Mercy
Author: Robin LaFevers
Published: 2012
Pages: 549
Age Range: 13-17
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Cover Score: ****
Overall Score: *****
Rating: PG-13

First Sentence: I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb.

Seventeen-year-old Ismae’s life has been one of extreme hardship. Mistreated by her father since she was tiny she has just escaped an arranged marriage to an equally cruel man and finds sanctuary at the convent of St Mortain. Here everyone serves the god of Death and they're trained as assassins to kill those who bear his marque. Eager to please and have a purpose in life she looks forward to exacting some justice on men in general, a group she assumes to be as cold and heartless as her husband and father had been.

Her first real assignment leads her to the high courts of Brittany where she poses as mistress to Gavriel Duval, step-brother to the duchess whose life and rule is in danger. She uses her feminine wiles to spy and gain information about the plots to assassinate the duchess and take over the duchy, while watching for evidence of the marque on those she comes in contact with.

She receives guidance from her convent but as she comes to know the people she is working with she realizes that some of the orders and decisions don’t make sense. She doubts their accuracy and worries that there is an ulterior motive or spy in their own midst. And then she has a visit from Death himself. Can she serve him the way she feels or is she losing her nerve and her heart?

Set against the reign of Anne, Duchess of Brittany in 1485 there is much history at work here but it is solely as a backdrop for Ismae’s story. There are stark differences between Ismae’s upbringing with its deep cruelties and her extreme wants and the lushness of the life she finds at court. The descriptions gently lull you into the time and setting, while you are being swallowed up in the intrigue of the plot.

There is a hint of magic surrounding the old gods and Ismae has some superhuman abilities including being immune to poison, otherwise it’s quite realistic.

This is a beautifully written book, the dialogue feeling authentic but not overly flowery or formal. Ismae’s progression throughout the story is believable and natural. I love that she was able to move beyond her past and refused to let others dictate who or what she should be. She took guidance and help when needed but learned to take charge of her own fate and decisions. And I appreciated the aspect of forgiveness and growth; too often the emphasis is on judgement and revenge, forgiveness being seen as a weakness. This passage shows some of her conflicting thoughts and what she must overcome:

“How did you sleep?” he asks politely.
I risk glancing at him, expecting to see a glint of amusement or a smirk. Instead, there is a hint of concern. It is this kindness of his that unsettles me most. I can dodge a blow or block a knife. I am impervious to poison and know a dozen ways to escape a chokehold or garrote wire. But kindness? I do not know how to defend against that.

This is a great historical fiction for those who don’t like historical fiction. The touch of fantasy makes you forget that the bulk of the premise is based on true events. It’s a fun escape and the first of a trilogy so watch for more to come!

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