On the night of Ismae’s marriage to an abusive pig farmer, she is rescued and spirited away to the Convent of St Mortain, the old god of death. There, she will learn to become Death’s handmaiden, a deadly assassin in service to her country, convent, and god. With Brittany at risk of invasion by the French, it is up to Ismae to figure out who is betraying the child duchess, Anne.
So, Grave Mercy. At first I dismissed this book because I thought it was another urban fantasy necromancer thing, you know the kind, the super-powered modern girl surrounded by men kicking butt and taking names. I was so very wrong –that will teach me not to read blurbs! As soon as I figured out this was historical YA fantasy, I almost wet myself with excitement. When I bought the book I almost cried. And when I started to read it I realised it was quite heavy and political, with strange French names I couldn’t keep straight nor remember who the characters were only reading a chapter every other week.
So I put the book down until I could concentrate on reading it over a long weekend.
Last weekend was my chance, and I fair devoured this wonderful luminous story.
It’s rare for me to like a story so much but dislike the character whom we’re supposed to admire. I read a lot of contemporary YA Mean Girl stories, and you’re not supposed to like those characters, but we are supposed to like Ismae. I’m not sure why – I found her a ferociously judgemental and entitled vain little girl who loved to be admired but only by people she chose to admire her. Despite it being part of her training, she absconded most of her ‘womanly charms/seduction’ lessons, which I understand adds conflict when there’s a romance thrown in her path, but it is the only class she cuts because she thinks it’s silly – never mind that one of the closest ways to get to a man is to seduce him. She’s terrified of intimacy yet longs to be ‘raped’ by her handsome companion. She’s horribly vain – upon arriving at the convent she is relieved to find out she will not be the ugliest one there, despite it being a convent, you know, women only! She judges handsome characters for being good-looking and despises the other girls who find them attractive, and doesn’t even realise how hypocritical she’s being, as she loves to be admired – but only by the people she chooses to admire her. Ugly, old, or otherwise unattractive people aren’t allowed to look at her, let alone think about intimate situations involving her. People aren’t allowed to assume she’s a prostitute even when that’s what she’s trying to convince them!
On the other hand I quite liked the male romantic interest, Duval. I was completely unconvinced by their romance – it seemed far too shallow for my liking, despite Ismae’s protestations that she would indeed fight him if he tried to rape her – something she repeated, actually, so we can tell it’s her lying to herself. Despite the romance being shallow, there also seemed to be a lack of chemistry and attraction between the two – Ismae spoke a lot about how her skin burned when he touched her, but not much about how she was finding him attractive either physically or emotionally. I myself quite liked Duval – he was steadfastly loyal and utterly devoted to the duchess of Brittany, which I find quite sweet. I really like romances that start off with the two characters hating each other, but Ismae was so unreliable about her sexuality – I get it, a convent-born virgin afraid of intimacy yet madly attracted to this guy she’s forced to be with – but I felt their relationship didn’t get the development it needed to convince me, at least on Ismae’s end – which is funny, because we’re inside her damn head, she should be able to convince me a whole lot easier than he did. Isame was rather shallow about the whole thing and I was yet to be convinced she actually did fall in love. From Duval’s perspective, I got that he was starting to feel affection towards her but I never really got his attraction to her at all, and even though by the end of the book I was convinced he loved her (because she’s amazing), I wasn’t convinced by their trials.
Apart from those frustrations, Ismae was a very smart and capable heroine who sometimes acted before she should have (thus: conflict) and was trying to find her way between serving her god, her convent, her duchess, her country and her own desires. It was terrific watching her turn this way and that, saving lives, taking lives, being included in these historical or otherwise fabricated events. She was at the exact age when those sorts of questions should be asked and loyalties tested or reaffirmed, and I felt despite her shallowness of both her personality and her romance I did otherwise really like her story.
The other major standout character for me was Anne, the Duchess of Brittany. She was awesome, and I don’t want to spoil anything (more than I already have) but she’s just really amazing and strong and all sorts of kick ass. I felt quite protective of her myself, especially after I succumbed to Wikipedia to find out what actually happened to Brittany in the 15th century.
I can’t wait to read Sybella’s story in Dark Triumph.