Book Review: Grave Mercy

Grave MercyGrave Mercy
By Robin LaFevers
April 3, 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Author’s Website
Hardcover | Kindle

Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?


I will make this clear from the very beginning: I am an HUGE fan of historical fiction. Typically, my “historical” involves “prehistoric” or the Renaissance Period, but “historical” none-the-less. If you have never before read a historical novel, or if you’re still on the fence as to whether or not you even want to, let GRAVE MERCY be your first entry into the genre. Odds are, you won’t be disappointed and will end up seeking similar titles.

The prose reads like historical fiction, the action plays out like the most thrilling adventure ride and the characters touch your heart as only the greatest of stories tend to do. To sum it up: I demand more from this astoundingly talented author!

Plot: 10

Grave Mercy opens with no mercy (excuse the pun) for either the main character, Ismae, or for the reader. Ismae comes from brutal beginnings that ultimately lead her to a convent of assassins who carry out the deeds of their god (or patron saint to be “politically correct within the novel). Ismae takes to this new life that fits her like a glove. She is honored when she is allowed to act on behalf of her god. Even though their deeds are dark, the sisters of the covenant are good and (fairly) moral people who follow their orders with no question. It is not until Ismae is sent on a mission that leads her to the royal court of Brittany that she starts to question her ultimate purpose… The plot is full of political insight and character conflict. It is at times complicated, yet ultimately it is a plot that can be connected easily as things fall into place while you read. In the telling of the story, Grave Mercy is a beautiful example of the best of historical fiction.

Characters: 10

Every character in this book has their own motives, their own personal conflicts and moments to shine. There are few characters introduced that are not fully explored, and even those who you feel should have been explored more will have their time to shine when book 2 is released. Ismae is at once a protagonist that you can relate to, you first feel sorry for her and her situation, then you admire her as she overcomes the obstacles that are set in her way. Her “duties” aside, she can be admired for her perseverance, her ability to analyze and make difficult decisions as well as for her high morals.

And Gavriel Duval…  Oh my, I think I actually found a man a bit closer to my own age in YA fiction to swoon over. Be still my beating heart. I’d have him be my guardian any day.

As for the other characters, for every action by one, there is a reaction by another. Though it can, at first, be difficult to keep the characters of the royal court straight, eventually you will simply read their names and know their history and situations. I appreciate LaFevers’ ability to create such a large cast of characters, each with their own individual stories, and make me care for more than a handful of them all within one story. In Grave Mercy there are many people to love, and so many lives at stake. You never totally know who to trust, but in the end this reader still wished the best for most of them (be they good or bad).

Setting: 10

Brittany, late 15th Century. What little I know about 15th century Europe, I still believed that I was living in the time period as I read Grave Mercy. Never once does LaFevers sway from the believable period dialogue in her writing. With that said, it is not a difficult book to read. Not one bit. Her descriptions of the places and people involved are impeccable, down to the fabrics they wear to the food they eat. Keep in mind: with the 15th century also comes an old fashioned idea about the place of women in society. Social customs and mannerisms are all kept true to the period. Again, I am not a historian, but I never once doubted the setting and period of this book. If any of you *is* a historian and feels otherwise, please step forward.

Pacing: 8

I personally believe that the pacing is spot on for this type of book. It takes all types of events, both those that progress the story and those that do not, to make a good historical novel. To get the feel for the period and the characters, one must as times sit through interactions that lead seemingly nowhere. But every interaction has a purpose. Yes, it adds weight to the novel, but as I said it is necessary. In addition, Grave Mercy is a mystery. In a good mystery you sometimes go down roads that lead to nowhere. This is again necessary to reach the correct conclusion. So to those who thought that the pacing was “too slow”, I say this: Grave Mercy is actually quite fast paced compared to similar historical fiction. Still, I took two points off for what some may have thought of as a “slow middle” full of royal court proceedings and political strife.

Style: 10

Oh, the prose! In the telling of Grave Mercy every human interaction and description is like music to my ears! I LOVE that we are allowed to meet Ismae from her most brutal beginnings and then see her evolve into a woman who learns from every experience, strong in her convictions. I LOVE how we meet characters and question their motives as the story progresses. I LOVE that nothing is TOLD outright to the reader, instead you are left to guess, to unfold the mystery, along with our protagonist. And again, the prose! The author does not dumb down her storytelling just for the reader’s sake, instead she tells us a complicated tale in a voice as beautiful as the deadly woman who flit around in its pages.

I count Grave Mercy among the best of the books that I have read in 2012. I sincerely hope that this series brings about a revival of historical fiction in young adult novels. It has not been since A Great and Terrible Beauty that I have read something this wonderful in the genre. Perhaps it will catch on. One can only hope. For now, I eagerly await what comes in DARK TRIUMPH, book two in the His Fair Assassin series… Oh dear, 2013 seems so far away…

Grade: 98


About Jenna (Does Books)

Working momma of a little pink princess and reader of all things YA. I'm an artist, writer and avid reader who swears that she's having a hard time letting go of the childish things... Let me read your latest YA book and let's see if it makes the grade!

Posted on March 26, 2012, in Book Review, Five Star and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Yet another book to add to my reading list. Well done, Jenna!

  2. Great blog here! Also your web site loads up very fast! What web host
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