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REVIEW: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Dear Ms. LaFevers,

One advantage of being offered books for review is that it has made me more adventurous as a reader. Even reading a bad book has some value to me if I can get a review out of it, so it’s not as much of a risk for me to take a chance on an unknown author.

I requested a copy of Grave Mercy on a whim; the blurb intrigued me. It is not a bad book, but I can’t say it was very successful for me. While the concept is interesting indeed, the execution felt strangely flat.

The story is set in 14th century Brittany, in an alternate world that diverges somewhat from historical fact (the world also contains some magical elements). Ismae is 14 years old and about to be forced into marriage to a brute by her equally brutish father. Rumor in their small village has long held that Ismae’s father is not her real father at all, and that she was instead sired by the god of death himself, St. Mortain. This is supposedly the reason that Ismae’s (long-gone) mother tried to abort her; obviously she didn’t succeed but Ismae bears a long, ugly scar on her body as a reminder of the poison that failed to expel her from the womb.

Ismae’s wedding night goes awry and she is beaten and then locked in a cellar by her husband; she is rescued by the very same herbwitch who had tried to abort her years before, and taken to the Convent of St. Mortain. Here Ismae discovers her value, as well as some special gifts. For one, she is largely impervious to poison; what would quickly kill another might make her mildly sick for a brief time. As the story unfolds, Ismae discovers other powers that touch on her unique relationship with death.

The nuns of St. Mortain train their charges to be assassins in the service of their god. (Mortain is called a saint to make him fit – more or less – into the Christian pantheon, but he and other saints were clearly repurposed from an earlier belief system.) For Ismae, serving Mortain means working with poisons and learning other skills that will make her deadly. When she is 17, she is sent out to make her first kill; her target is a traitor working for the French against the interests of Brittany’s ruler. The job goes off fairly successfully and Ismae is relatively free of guilt, which I appreciated.

The nuns of St. Mortain have various resources at their disposal that help them determine who to target for assassination. The convent has an elderly nun who acts as a seer. The assassins themselves can perceive a “marque” on the bodies of their victims that confirms that they are marked by St. Mortain for death (usually in the form of a shadow or smudge that may appear in the spot where the killing blow is eventually struck). It becomes evident though that the nuns are politically connected as well, and at least some of the killings (specifically, those that Ismae is involved in) are linked to the struggle between France and Brittany and perhaps based on information from outside sources who might have their own agendas.

Ismae struggles with her gratitude to the convent, her desire to be obedient, and her sense, which grows stronger as the book progresses, that the nuns of St. Mortain are not as infallible in their judgments as she’s been led to believe. Her disquiet increases when she is given an important assignment: she is sent to the court of Anne, Duchess of Brittany, the ruler whose control of the realm is threatened by the French. Ismae accompanies Gavriel Duval, a young and serious noble who happens to be Anne’s illegitimate half-brother. Ismae has been warned to keep an eye on Gavriel as the convent suspects he may be acting against Anne’s interests, but the idea of having to eventually perhaps kill him becomes more difficult as the two grow closer.

There’s a lot going on in this book – there is Ismae’s coming-of-age, as a woman and an assassin, the mythology of the alternate world the author creates, with its unfamiliar saints and fables, and there’s political intrigue. A lot of political intrigue. I’m not opposed to political intrigue as a matter of course, but I think it interests me more when it involves real history. Even so, fictional historical intrigue could be made interesting to me, but this just wasn’t that intriguing. Anne (who I was suprised to realize, late in the story, is much younger than I’d thought – around 12) is beset by potential enemies at every turn. She needs to marry to secure her kingdom’s safety from the French, but none of the prospects are appealing (the most persistent one is a dirty old man old enough to be her grandfather). She can’t trust all her advisers, but she doesn’t know which are truly and actively working against her and which are merely trying to push her in one direction or another for personal gain or because they honestly believe they are acting in Brittany’s best interests.

When I read back the description of the plot so far, I keep thinking that this sounds like a great book. That it wasn’t great isn’t attributable to any one thing, but a dozen small pieces that are missing: a great heroine, a great hero, a compelling love story, an intriguing villain, sparkling writing, a conflict worth taking a rooting interest in, surprising plot turns, a fantasy world that really came alive. If even a few of those elements were there, the book would’ve worked a whole lot better for me. As it was, it’s a book with a great set-up that was mediocre in every other way.

I would’ve liked Ismae better if she had been better at being what she was trained to be. In a way, her hesitancy was understandable: when the bulk of the story takes place Ismae has a handful of kills under her belt, and she’s still just 17. But one does get so tired of heroines who end up being something less than the bad-asses they were advertised to be. Readers who are ambivalent about assassins or tough heroines may actually prefer Ismae as she is. I don’t necessarily favor kick-ass heroines over other types, but once I expect a heroine to be kick-ass I get excessively annoyed when she doesn’t deliver. Ismae wasn’t incompetent, but she was far from kick-ass. For an assassin, she’s really kind of insipid. The most remarkable thing about Ismae is that she’s good at not dying of poison, and that’s not really something she gets the credit for.

The relationship between Ismae and Gavriel is pretty tepid. They are obviously attracted to each other but have so many missed connections that their romance quickly became frustrating to read about. I wondered how old Gavriel was supposed to be because at times he’s portrayed as sort of romance-hero-supercompetent, which suggested that he was a bit older (closer to 30), but other times he seemed quite young. I didn’t actually want him to be that old because Ismae is really a pretty young and sheltered 17-year-old, for all that she kills people for a living.

I couldn’t decide if the YA designation was appropriate for this book or not. The assassin theme would probably relegate it to suitability for older teens, mostly, but I’m not sure they’d be that interested in all of the political intrigue (I mean, I wasn’t that interested in the political intrigue). There was a certain lack of sophistication and complexity in the writing that’s reminiscent of other YA books I’ve read, which I guess is not exactly a compliment, but what I’m trying to say is that it did read like a YA to me in some ways. Even when serious things happen – murders, attempted rapes, attempted murders – it didn’t really feel too intense or scary. I think the writing felt like it was for a younger teen but the plotting for an older one. There was one very discreet sex scene.

Ultimately, the problem with Grave Mercy was that in spite of the intriguing possibilities presented by the concept, the book itself was just bland. My grade is a C.

Best regards,

Jennie

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

20 Comments

  1. Janine
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 14:08:54

    When I read back the description of the plot so far, I keep thinking that this sounds like a great book. That it wasn’t great isn’t attributable to any one thing, but a dozen small pieces that are missing: a great heroine, a great hero, a compelling love story, an intriguing villain, sparkling writing, a conflict worth taking a rooting interest in, surprising plot turns, a fantasy world that really came alive. If even a few of those elements were there, the book would’ve worked a whole lot better for me. As it was, it’s a book with a great set-up that was mediocre in every other way.

    What a shame the execution was so lacking, because the blurb sounded great to me too.

  2. Anachronist
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 14:12:14

    Thanks for a long and detailed review – I really appreciate the fact that my reviews are not the only detailed and long pieces around ;)

    The book is not for me. I quite agree – if it was executed better it might have interested me more.

  3. Kati
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 14:22:44

    I agree, on paper it sounds like it’s a great book. And the cover is really beautiful. But if you can’t execute, all the well written blurbs and pretty covers in the world aren’t going to help you. Too bad, this one looks like something I’d have taken a chance on.

  4. Susan
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 17:28:27

    Well, darn. Another one I preordered because it sounded so interesting. Eventually I’ll learn. Thanks for the review.

  5. Sharon
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 18:10:21

    I thought about this one, but I kept hesitating. After reading this review, I think I’ll pass.

  6. Rebecca
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 21:08:28

    I really liked this book, but, no book is for everyone. By the way Duval is around 25 I think – Anne (who is 12) mentions that when she was born, he must have been around 12 or 13.

  7. Helen
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 21:33:35

    I really really liked this book and gave it a 5 at GR. I actually thought it would have been better shelved as a fantasy novel in the sci/fi fantasy section rather than YA, I don’t know that many YA’s are going to actually like this book. I think it would appeal to people who enjoyed The Poison Study series by Snyder or Kristen Cashore’s Graceling.

  8. AmyW
    Apr 04, 2012 @ 21:59:09

    Hmm, I think I’d like to check this out. I wanted to DL a sample to my Kindle but can’t find a Kindle listing for it. Is it just me? (I’m in Canada, so maybe it’s a territory thing?)

    @Helen – I also thought it sounded a bit like Poison Study (not surprising with the poison angle) and I just finished Graceling last week. I liked them both.

  9. Rebecca
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 00:02:42

    @AmyW – there’s a Kindle version in the US on Amazon.

  10. AmyW
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 08:56:11

    Thanks, Rebecca! Guess I have some sleuthing to do to find a legit version for Canada….

  11. Kelly L.
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 12:46:26

    @Helen: I loved this one too!

  12. Rosie
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 15:26:12

    I bought this one after seeing lots of great buzz. I’m enjoying it so far.

  13. Rebecca
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 18:35:25

    @AmyW – I don’t read Kindle books so I’m not sure how long the samples usually are, but the author’s website has chapter 1: http://www.robinlafevers.com/books/grave-mercy-excerpt/ and Amazon US has an excerpt that’s a bit longer I think, with that browse inside the print book feature.

  14. Faith
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 18:53:38

    I have an e-ARC (is that even a term yet?) on my Nook and I just can’t get in to it, for many of the same reasons. Since my Nook says it’s 500-something pages I’m shelving it till the book actually comes out. The premise sounds so good but, you’re right, it’s just flat. The writing style is boring me and I’m only at page 30. Shelving for now.

  15. Jennie
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 20:11:49

    @Helen: I had the Poison Study series on my e-reader for the longest time. Never read them, though.

    I’m not surprised that this book has fans – I had seen that it has a lot of good reviews on GR. The thing with a book like this is, “bland” and flat are highly subjective things. I’m always a little surprised (even though I know I shouldn’t be) when others love a book with what I think is TERRIBLE prose, or a book with really offensive plot elements (like some bad old bodice-rippers). But when a book just doesn’t click or sparkle for me, I know it very well may work fine for other readers.

  16. Marumae
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 04:25:55

    I wonder if this was originally supposed to be an adult historical/fantasy that was remarketed as a YA novel? I agree it’s too bad the elements didn’t work for you, it sounded awesome as hell. I still may pick this up from the library, who knows? Maybe what didn’t work for you would for me?

  17. Patricia Eimer
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 07:57:12

    Ah man this one sounded good. I was on the wait list for it at my library. I’ll still keep it just to give it a go but my enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat.

  18. Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder « Kay's Bookshelf
    Apr 11, 2012 @ 13:22:46

    [...] impression I started this after reading some comments of the review of Grave Mercy over at Dear Author‘s. As there was more than one person saying this book is better than Grave Mercy, and I have [...]

  19. Dear Robin LaFevers | Shelf Talkers Anonymous
    Apr 23, 2012 @ 06:33:37

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  20. Caitlyn
    May 03, 2013 @ 10:00:22

    I read it online. I got lucky and found the full version. I was instantly immersed. I find that this is a very fast paced read. I did indeed enjoy Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. They are similar in some aspects but I found this one to be way more enjoyable. I’m currently re-reading Grave Mercy for a finals project. I do agree that this book is not for everyone. I can’t wait to dig into the secret His Fair Assassins book.

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