Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Crossbow toting assassin nuns? Yes please!

 Violence, Adult Situations

I was pleasantly surprised by Grave Mercy. And considering the fact that I had been eagerly anticipating this book for months, that's no easy feat! I fully expected it to be an entertaining story, it just wasn't exactly the story I was expecting. Set in medieval  Brittany - which is now part of France, but was then a duchy fighting to maintain its independence - Grave Mercy is the first installment of Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin series. Told in first person, the book centers around Ismae, who flees a brutal arranged marriage and is raised in a convent. But she didn't get your usual Catholic school education. The nuns at the convent of St. Mortain didn't whack people on the knuckles with rulers. Think battle axes instead!

Actually they'd lean toward subtler weapons: knives, daggers, garottes, crossbows, poisons. The convent of St. Mortain raised assassins. Not your typical convent, but then Mortain wasn't your typical Catholic saint. He was the Breton god of death, dressed up in Catholic robes to appease the Church, which didn't look too kindly on local pagan deities. Ismae was marked from birth as belonging to Mortain and the convent trained her to do his will.

Crossbow toting assassin nuns? Yes please!

You can see why I would be so excited to read this book. I was all geared up for an 549 pages of bloody action! Maybe the page count should have tipped me off that I'd be in for something a little different. What starts out as a medieval version of Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls series - minus the boy troubles and with far less comedy - quickly turns into a story of aristocratic intrigue and court politics as Ismae leaves the convent in order to protect the adolescent duchess of Brittany from scheming advisers and backstabbing barons. I've got no problem with that! I happen to love history and politics. I found it very interesting learning about medieval Brittany and its struggle to maintain independence from France, especially since LaFevers faithfully carried over most of the people and events from the documented annuls of history. (Read the author's note for more on the subject of historical accuracy.)

But if you're worried that this book is nothing more than a history textbook, allow me to calm your fears. Grave Mercy is a very well written story. The characters are alive and complex. LaFevers maintains a high level of suspense as Ismae attempts to uncover plots and traitors. And while she is most decidedly not boy crazy, she does struggle with inner conflict concerning her duty to her faith and her burgeoning feelings for the man who is either the duchess' most loyal protector or most treacherous enemy.

Really my only criticism of Grave Mercy is that it isn't bloody enough. Even after readjusting my expectations away from a more action-oriented story, I'm still left feeling that a tale about an assassin should include a few more assassinations. Perhaps I've been ruined by modern cinema, but I would have liked to have seen Ismae's combat training come into play a bit more. Additionally, I think the story would have benefited from more of the characters Beast and de Lornay. But these minor issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Grave Mercy and I look forward to the next book in the His Fair Assassin series.

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