Science fiction and fantasy                                            



Grave Mercy

by Robin Lafevers

cover  

 
There's something about nuns that makes writers want to arm them to the teeth. Grave Mercy takes up where Nuns on the Run left off, bringing the assassin nun to late 15th century Brittany, where a group of them are intent on preserving the duchy's independence from France. Ismae was born with an ugly birthmark down her back due to a failed abortion attempt, and because of this it's said she was sired by the god of death, Mortain, one of the old gods. Her father wants rid of her but he has trouble since she's not considered much of a marriage prospect. She escapes persecution and possible witch burning and travels to the island Abbey of St Mortain.

Robin Lafever's Brittany is full of hedge priests and herbwives who worship the old gods and maintain the old religion, but the Catholic church is increasingly encroaching on this world. At the Abbey Ismae finds friendship, and she also gets an unconventional education in poisons, herbs, and the art of assassination. After the ill treatment she's had at the hands of men she's more than happy to go out and off a few of them in the name of her god. I liked her defiance and the way she's pleased with the smallest triumphs, but Ismae also seems to have a vicious streak.

She's sent out on a mission to protect the young duchess Anne, and to eliminate any traitors that surround her. Ismae is obliged to team up with the tall and soldierly Gavriel Duval, a man she doesn't trust. But Gavriel doesn't appear to carry Mortain's marque, which is the sign Ismae uses to determine whether someone's time is up and she's free to punish them. However that doesn't the marque isn't on him, perhaps hidden by clothes, so she watches him closely for signs of treachery.

The Breton court is full of factions competing for Anne's hand in marriage and a stake in her throne. Ismae has to navigate these courtly power plays and it's full of stories she doesn't know, so she can't do it without assistance. It's a far cry from the life of a turnip farmer's daughter, or even from sheltered convent life, and sometimes the pretence of being a courtier stretches all her acting skills.

The story is engaging and varied, especially when Ismae starts to question some of the assumptions she's made about the path she's chosen. There's a strong romantic thread, but it's very obvious right from the stereotypical bad first impressions and initial mutual antagonism how it's going to play out. However the mystery of who is plotting against Anne is anything but clear-cut, and later on Ismae gets plenty of chances to put her badass training to use. It's a slow-boil romance contrasted with an exciting, action-packed intrigue which tends to be told in breathless, clipped sentences whenever things get hectic.

I didn't really understand the god Mortain's involvement in human affairs. He might not want another religion to take over in Brittany, but why would a deity of death be overly concerned with protecting anyone and saving lives? The supernatural aspects work as a peg to hang all of the action off though, and it's an original and fresh imagining. And best of all, Grave Mercy was a story I could really get into and I was reluctant to put down when it finished.

9th April 2012

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books

  Fantasy
    Female Protagonist  

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