November 4, 2012

Grave Mercy: A Panoramic Review

"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?" (from Goodreads)

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
My reaction: 

I ended up getting really, really into this book. It took me a few chapters, but partway through I was totally sucked into it. While I didn't like Ismae very much at the beginning (I was all, "I don't know if I'm really going to like this girl who just wants to kill men all the time"), she definitely grew on me. At first I couldn't get into the assassin side of things — Ismae was basically a killing machine for the convent, more or less — but she grows a will of her own, which was important to win me over to her side. She's pretty rigid, hard, and untrusting at the start, but as the book progresses she develops a softer side. I liked Ismae's spirited determination and her protective, almost sisterly nature towards the duchess. We also see an interesting conflict in Ismae between loyalty to the convent, loyalty to the religion itself, and loyalty to her own instincts and her heart. She's obviously getting torn in at least two (possibly more) directions about what her purpose is and how she should act.

I really liked the duchess as well; she's one of those pure characters you can't help but root for. She's quite young, and scared in some ways, but still determined to face up to all the threats being made. I had to feel bad for the poor girl because she's between a rock and a hard place, and basically her best option to save her country is to marry someone without any guarantee of love. The duchess' younger sister isn't really fleshed out much, but I think she has the potential to be an interesting character, so maybe we'll see more of her in the next book?

There is a large cast of characters here, but Robin LaFevers handles the characterization fabulously. It's tough to keep track of who's who, yes, but not as difficult as one might expect, because LaFevers gives the characters distinctive features and personalities. There's also a character list at the beginning you can flip to if you're having trouble. What's more challenging is trying to picture geographically what's going on; while there is a map provided, I didn't find it very helpful (in fact, I still can't figure out why the label "France" is in the middle of the ocean?)

I found the idea of Ismae's calling/religion and her devotion to the convent quite interesting, and for the most part well-executed (pardon the pun!). It's something that's not very tangible, and yet LaFevers doesn't take it into the really supernatural zone. The fantasy elements don't scream "paranormal" but are instead kept to a minimum, just a part of Ismae's gifts and ability. There was one plot point relating to the fantasy/religion aspect that I was of two minds about (spoiler, highlight to read: Death appearing to Ismae on the battlefield). I thought it was rather convenient and a little cliched, but it worked to give Ismae's powers and the magic system more validity as well as help Ismae make an important resolution, so I saw the point of it.

LaFevers demonstrates ambiguity in the religious system, and how interpretations can differ; I appreciated that this wasn't portrayed in a clear-cut manner (although I hope we get some more answers as the series continues!). Spoilers: I liked that we're shown the convent is fallible — the abbess ends up being pretty vicious! I always thought Ismae placed too much trust in the convent anyway, so I'm glad she finally realizes it (although it takes her a long time...she's quite dense in some ways).

Best aspect: the Ismae/Duval relationship, especially all the simmering, stretched-out tension before they end up getting together (the tension is often the best part of a romance!). They just can't help themselves, they're drawn to each other and there's this attraction and chemistry there that they both keep fighting. The progression of their relationship plays a significant role in Ismae's character development as well. She puts up a wall for so long, coming up with all these excuses and denying to herself that she cares about Duval, but then it finally breaks down as she lets herself love him. I always find that very rewarding to see as a reader, when characters slowly begin to trust others (although frustrating at times, too! I wanted to conk Ismae over the head and say, "You're in love! Admit it already!")

Once they do become involved, it thankfully doesn't get very sappy between them (a common pitfall of romances, I find. I actually could have used more emotional declaration from both of them!). Still, it's very much implied in everything they do for each other.

If I could change something... I would make the climactic scenes more dramatic and eventful. I thought this was the weakest aspect of Grave Mercy — there's a lot of build-up in terms of intrigue, deaths, and political maneuvring, but then not that much pay-off at the finale. The villain (who wasn't a big surprise — I began to suspect this character was up to no good partway through) was overcome rather easily, the confrontation being disappointingly anti-climactic. (Although it should be noted that thankfully, the villain was motivated by something other than a desire for power, giving the character very good reasoning for their traitorous actions.) I thought all the political maneuvring would tie together somehow, but some of the big-picture storylines are left unresolved; hopefully, they'll be tackled in the next book(s) in the series. Still, I'd have liked to have seen more of a complete internal plot arc within Grave Mercy itself.

And while I liked the idea of a battle — most of the book involved intrigue around the palace, so it was good that we got a bigger-scale event — it wasn't epic enough. They're saved rather easily and I thought the threat to the duchess' life could have been greater. I just wish there'd been more kick at the end; it seemed to lose that gripping quality that most of the book had. There wasn't one heart-pounding, everything-hanging-on-a-string, incredible moment where you wonder if everyone is going to make it.

If you haven't read it: and you'd like to check out an absorbing, stay-up-late-at-night-reading YA fantasy in the vein of Mistwood by Leah Cypess, Summers at Castle Auburn by Sharon Shinn, Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith, and Poison Study by Maria V. Snyder (I've seen Grave Mercy likened to that one in particular, and it is a good comparison), then I strongly suggest you pick this book up!

If you have read it: what are your hopes/expectations for the next in the series? (I know the next doesn't focus on Ismae, but I'm hoping she at least gets a cameo appearance!)

Just one more thing I want to mention: I really enjoyed the initial stages of the Ismae-Duval relationship, but I thought the last part of the book didn't handle it as well. There was one scene in particular that had me going, "Okay, that's kinda...weird...just how does that work, exactly?" Spoilers: Ismae has sex with Duval to take away the effects of the poison on him. This seemed to come out of nowhere and I felt like perhaps the author was just using the poison-removal as an excuse for them to have sex. (Plus, I have to wonder, is Ismae going to have to do that every time she wants to save someone who's been poisoned? Could get awkward...).


Feeling miserable, although not sure why, I wrap my arms around myself. "I am sorry, my lord. I did not wish to harm you." The truth of my words surprises me, for it seems as if I have done naught but long to be rid of him.

His smile flashes, quick and surprising in the darkness. "When one consorts with assassins, one must expect to dance along the edge of a knife once or twice. I bid you good night." 
Final verdict: 4.5 shooting stars. The first 3/4s were fantastic, but the ending didn't quite live up to the rest of it. However, it was an awesome read in terms of the reading experience, and I'm definitely going to be picking up the next one!

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Note: This book contains some mature (violent and sexual) content.


  1. I liked this book but had read so much hype beforehand that I wasn't as impressed as I might have been. I will not make that mistake for the second book, which I am eagerly anticipating. I'm especially interested to see how Death and the convent feature in that book.

  2. I really liked this one too! I was just a bit confused on the Saints and the religious aspects. I was hoping for more of a clarification on that part. I also want to know what was up with her weird classmate at the end.

  3. I just picked this up at the library and now I'm looking forward to starting it! Great review!

  4. Lol, I was a bit confused about the Ismae/Duval spoiler you mentioned too. I thought maybe I had read it wrong so I ignored it but it's good to know that it wasn't just my imagination. I'm not sure what to make of that.

    I'm excited about the next book. I found Sybella pretty interesting even though she was just a minor character so it'll be fun to have an entire book devoted to her. I'm hoping Ismae and Duval make quite a few appearances though.

  5. I pretty much loved this one. I'm hoping, in the sequels, to see a lot of character depth because we're introduced to the new main characters as minor characters but I still want the older ones around and to play a big role on their own. If that makes any sense.

  6. Oh good! I'm so glad you liked this. I loved reading your review and how you broke down all the parts. I agree, the romance was my favorite part (and the end scene with your spoiler was equally confusing to me), but it would have been nice to have it feel like the stakes were higher. I mean, it felt pretty high, but it lacked that something toward the end. You described it better than I am :P


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