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?
Tell Me More: When a tagline induces goosebumps, it’s a safe bet that the book itself offers a mind-blowing experience unlike any other. Grave Mercy is a mammoth of a novel, but the intrigue and danger lurking on every page will keep even the most hardened reader frantically pursuing the ending.
Beyond the obvious historical threads that wind through the story, Grave Mercy also delves into a discussion of power and the right to wield it. At the beginning of the story, Ismae is aware of the “power” she holds as a child of Death, but she is unable to use it against her hateful father. While it may be easy to dismiss him as just another obstacle in Ismae’s path, I find their dynamic interesting. Excusing his behaviour toward Ismae may not be possible, but for all intents and purposes, he was cuckolded by his wife and left with a child not his own. In medieval times, it was difficult enough to be a daughter. What more if you weren’t even your father’s real child? I understand the animosity, and I think it plays a role in how Ismae sees herself: not quite real and not quite whole, with a power that she doesn’t know how to control. It isn’t until she is taken to the convent of St. Mortain that she begins to use her powers. Note that I said “use,” not “understand.” That distinction becomes even more important when she leaves for her first mission.
Power is an interesting concept in itself. Human beings want to wield it and use it to defend themselves, but often, power rules the person. Ismae discovers that almost too late when she is caught in the deadly tangle of Brittany politics. She refuses to see herself as weak, but she uses that perspective to get what she wants. I was reminded of another tenacious heroine from YA–Cammie Morgan of the Gallagher Girls. Cammie tells the reader that the Gallagher Girls use every tool at their disposal to complete the mission, and that includes letting their assets/enemies think they’re nothing more than simple girls. Which brings me to the most interesting question that Grave Mercy raises: Is love itself just a power play?
I’ve read many dismissive posts about the love story that LaFevers writes into the novel. I myself was hesitant to see it play out, because I didn’t think it was necessary to advance Ismae’s character development. Luckily, I don’t have any qualms over admitting I was wrong. As easy as it would be to say that Ismae just goes from one controlling man to the other, the point is that when that time comes, she alone can make that choice. At the end of the novel, Ismae is a very different woman, one who understands the weight of the decisions she makes and the dangerous pressures of ruling not only a kingdom, but someone’s heart as well. We grow numb now to the gravity in vows such as “‘Til Death do us part.” To Ismae, Death is a tangible and commanding force in her life, more so than love. That kind of commitment isn’t thrown off lightly. The struggles she goes through are more compelling because of the natural way they arise, and more captivating for how they are defeated.
With that kind of plot, however, questions of maturity can and should be raised. Grave Mercy is being marketed as a YA novel, though there are mature situations in the story. I personally don’t think that it is too heavy or intense for teenagers who come across sexually-charged advertisements every day. There is no gratuitous sex, nor are those scenes thrown in simply to shock and enrage. Every scene in the novel serves a greater purpose, and to regard them as anything else would be doing yourself a disservice. LaFevers has an tight grip on the story she wants to tell, and it is wonderfully poignant and fascinating to observe.
The Final Say: A cover that perfectly matches the contents of the book, characters whose heartbeats you can hear while reading and themes that will stun even fickle readers–Grave Mercy impresses on all counts.