Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Robin LaFevers's Grave Mercy rings my bell on about a million different levels. Her heroine is thoughtful, cautious, and totally badass, the story dives into a load of historical details without triggering all of my usual squeamishness about novels set pre-1800, and—best of all—it's the first installment of a trilogy, but there's no cliffhanger: each novel is a complete story, and told from a different (but interconnected) point of view.

Set in 15th century Brittany, Grave Mercy blends fact and fiction. The story opens as LaFevers's heroine—fourteen-year-old Ismae—is being married off by her abusive father to an equally cruel husband. When her husband sees her naked back on their wedding night, Ismae's secret is revealed: a mark that identifies her as a daughter of Mortain, the Breton god of Death. Her loving spouse intends to have her burned as a witch, but Ismae is instead spirited away to the convent of St. Mortain, where a secretive and powerful group of nuns transform abandoned, hopeless girls into implacable assassins. Three years later, Ismae is ready to become a full initiate, but first she must survive a series of tests that will expose her to all the dangers of Brittany's ongoing struggle to remain independent from France.

Grave Mercy offers an enthralling mash-up of historical soap opera, classic coming-of-age tale, and undiluted action. To my delight, Ismae is never, after that first sequence, a damsel in distress, nor does she make foolish mistakes. (She's not always right, of course, but her logic is generally sound.) Admittedly, I was mildly skeeved out by a particular plot development late in the story—without spoiling anything, I can only say that Ismae eventually discovers a magical power of which Laurell K. Hamilton would approve—but that one sour note was easily overwhelmed by my enjoyment of the rest of the book.
Posted by: Julianka


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