Thursday, 29 March 2012

Book Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Pros: interesting setting, brilliant assassin school/convent idea, characters all have realistic motivations (including the antagonists)

Cons: I didn't understand why Ismae was chosen for the mission

Ismae is 17 years old and about to be married off to a man who is likely as boorish and abusive as her father, when she's spirited away to a convent.  There she learns that being the daughter of Death is not a curse but a blessing and is trained in the ways of assassins.  

But she skips out on her lessons on courtliness and seduction, lessons that would have helped with her third assignment, at the court of Brittany's besieged twelve year old Duchess.  A Duchess whose hand in marriage was promised to a boorish, brutal man.  This is a marriage alliance that her older half-brother, Duval, the man Ismae is to accompany to court, and whom she must watch for signs of treason, intends to prevent.  

As she tries to see through the various plots at court, Ismae discovers she has feelings for Duval.  But Death's Handmaidens are not trained for love.

Late Medieval Brittany is a fantastic setting, with all the political intrigue at the Duchess's court as well as the threat of attack from the French.  There's even the threat of attack from her suitor should she break the betrothal agreement her father made with him.  The countryside is suitably rustic and court extravagant.  

The convent to the old God of Death, Mortain, now called a Saint after the Christianization of the land, and its training of assassins who work for His cause, was brilliant.  It feels more like a boarding school setting, with the girls learning the different arts they will need.  The only off note here was the inclusion of Eastern style martial arts, which would have been unknown in those parts at that time.  But as it's historical fantasy, one cannot fault the author for wanting to include throwing stars (or rondelles as they're called in the book) and the like in the arsenals of the girls.

The motivations for each characters actions is realistic, even those of the bad guys.  Indeed, the book shows court life in all its complexity, with few being trustworthy and everyone working towards their own aims - even when those aims are in direct opposition to those of their sovereign.  It also shows the power and lack thereof of women.  Though Duchess, due to her age and sex Anne's  voice isn't held in high esteem.  And her council members try to make the best decisions for Brittany, even though they may not be the best decisions for Anne herself.

My only real complaint with the book was that Ismae shouldn't have been sent on this mission.  She didn't have the understanding of court life required nor was she sufficiently adept at hiding her identity or mission.  I was surprised that no back story was created to explain her meeting Duval, and she was constantly jumping to conclusions, or assuming that events could only point to one answer, while I often saw other options that she missed or only considered in passing.  This pushed me out of the story on many occasions, when I wondered why the convent would send her, as a novice, when they must have had more experienced women they could have sent who would have done a much better job.  She was also accepted at court more readily than I believed possible (given her peasant upbringing and her lack of comfort with court/city life) and allowed to wander everywhere, something I doubt a real court would have allowed of a high ranking officer's mistress (which was her cover story, and an odd cover story for a woman who is trying to hobnob with ladies-in-waiting).  Ismae was surprisingly bad at talking to servants, which given that she was looking for gossip, seemed a serious failing.  She also tuned out the gossip of the Duchess's ladies on those few occasions when she met with them.  I was surprised that their gossip was always passed off as being frivolous, when in reality there would have been some political undertones to their conversation.  

The book ended well - indeed Ismae came into her own for the last hundred pages and I liked her a lot more for it.  

If you can overlook Ismae's unsuitableness for the mission, it's an interesting read.

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