Grave Mercy is Robin LaFevers’ first foray into young adult literature and is the first volume in a contracted trilogy. This book has been getting a fair bit of marketing and buzz on the web, which I think it justly deserves.
Set in Brittany at the end of the 15th century, Grave Mercy follows Ismae, a peasant girl born under unusual circumstances. When she is fourteen, Ismae enters a convent as a novice. Except this is not a normal convent; it’s dedicated to the service of St. Mortain, the Breton patron saint of death. Rather than preparing to take vows as the Bride of Christ, she’s trained as an assassin. Three years later, Ismae is sent out on the final three trials she must pass before being allowed to take her final vows.
Some complex history
If you’ve never studied the history of France and England during the late Medieval and Early Renaissance periods, let me sum it up for you: complicated. France and England have mostly stopped fighting over territories in what is today northern France by the time the book opens, but that means that the French crown can now turn its attention to the smaller independent duchies on its borders, such as Brittany, the northwestern-most region of modern-day France. While previous English monarchs might have been interested in backing these duchies as a way to limit French power in the region, Henry Tudor (Henry V) is still busy consolidating his realm after the end of the Wars of the Roses and doesn’t have much help to send. Ismae’s trials center around the ascension of thirteen-year-old Anne as the Duchess of Brittany while France tries to bring Brittany under its authority.
LaFevers has managed to write one of the best historically accurate novels I’ve read in a long long time. She’s paid an incredible attention to detail. The details of this fictional Anne’s situation match with the historical Anne of Brittany. The situation within the Church passes the believability test. As someone who studied far too much history in college, I was surprised to find myself nitpicking only on the historical fashion details, which is unusual for me when reading a work of historical fiction. And honestly, fashion details at the level I can nitpick at are just not that important. However, while I could fill in a lot of extraneous details about the situation that LaFevers doesn’t go into, it’s not necessary to read the book. You don’t need to sit at a computer on Wikipedia in order to understand what’s going on. LaFevers gives you more than enough to walk into the book with no previous knowledge of what was going on in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Still a romantic teen fantasy
The key to Ismae’s story is that her order of nuns have supernatural powers, making them all uniquely suited to their roles as spies and assassins for the Ducal family of Brittany. Each woman is a little bit different, and Ismae appears to be one of the more talented members of her order. As much fun as it is to have a superpowered assassin running around Renaissance Europe, this is a young adult book. Ismae has a very definite and obvious love interest, although I am happy to tell you that LaFevers has spared us the love triangle that’s been so popular of late.
While a seventeen-year-old in Renaissance Europe, male or female, is going to be considered a full grown adult, this book is targeted at modern seventeen-year-olds. Therefore, the book is not nearly as dark or gritty as it could have been. The situations Ismae finds herself in have been limited to a PG-13 capable audience and have not crossed the line into fully adult situations, no matter how much dancing along that line LaFevers does. I think my one real complaint about this book is that she didn’t cross those lines: I would have enjoyed an ‘adult’ version of this book more than the simplified young adult one. However, this book is still very accessible to an adult audience. You won’t be choking on the cotton candy or worried about a highly romantic but ultimately abusive relationship. Ismae is emotionally older than her target audience, and her choices are reflective of that. I also have a deep respect for LaFevers’ writing skill. She’s given us a seventeen-year-old female who fits in her historical time and place while remaining accessible to a modern audience.
Why you should read this book
Keep in mind that this is a young adult romance. If that’s not your usual taste, that may be the only reason to leave this on the shelf. For Grave Mercy is a well written, extremely well-executed novel of historical speculative fiction. Add in supernatural spies and assassins, as well a good bit of ass-kicking heroine, and how could you go wrong?