Robin La Fevers
Ismae has always been different and has always suffered for it. Born to an unwilling mother and an angry father, her body bears the mark of a deadly poison, intended to kill her while she still resided in her mother’s womb. The fact that this poison merely scars her leads to the pronouncement that she must be not the daughter of a mortal man, but that of Mortain – the God of Death. Needless to say, when she gets to marriageable age there aren’t many suitors a’ knockin’ and her father sends his fourteen year old daughter into a marriage with a man as abusive as himself. Rescued from her seemingly inevitable fate at the twelfth hour, Ismae finds herself spirited away to a strange Abbey, inhabited by a band of nuns versed in the arts of death – for they are all his daughters. Here she learns that her parentage has imbued in her a strange ability with poisons, as well as a variety of other deathly arts. Trained as an assassin, Ismae is sent by her imperious Abbess into the royal court of Brittany – currently fighting for it’s independence from the all powerful France and finds herself immersed in a world of courtly intrigue, dangerous waters and political murk. As she slowly feels her way towards the source of much betrayal (and her ultimate mark) she discovers that the situation may not be as simple as her superiors would have her believe. Thrown together with nobleman, Gavriel, she slowly realises that the only person she can really trust is herself.
Ismae is an interesting character – to an extent. First encountered at the age of fourteen, she is a scared child, unloved and sadly resigned to a harsh future with a good dose of self-loathing thrown in for good measure (largely to do with the scar she has lived with since birth). Her story then jumps forward three years during which time she has become a fairly confident young woman, ready to start a career of killing in the name of, er, death. She has understandable trust issues when it comes to men and clearly feels herself to be superior to them. Which is fine… until she changes her mind. It seems inevitable that Ismae might eventually meet a nice bloke who would help her see that not all men are abusive monsters but did it have to be one of the first men she meets? It seems to stretch credulity a little and while all things are possible, this rather effortless change in stance didn’t aid the already rather bland characterisation. It’s not that Ismae is unlikable, she’s just dull – something that even the excellent daughter-of-death premise cannot remedy.
Few characters in Grave Mercy particularly stand out but Gavriel is probably the better written. He’s a pleasing mix of impatience and kindness, duty and care, trust and misgiving and all of his actions seem believable… until they don’t. Again, there is a point in the book where his decision making process seems to go out of the window and he starts scurrying around dark passages in a rather useless and increasingly irresponsible manner. Anne of Brittany, as the great white hope of the movement to retain independence is also pretty interesting and a character who reads well from start to finish (as does the formidable Abbess). She becomes particularly striking when you realise how young she is – although it is sometimes hard to reconcile her young age with such a mature bearing.
While Grave Mercy attracts with its premise (daughter of death leaves home to become assassin in name of father) in actuality it excels in the story of a royal court torn apart from within. Mixing historical fact with fantasy works surprisingly well but the book would have worked just as well without the God of Death aspect. La Fevers has written a truly gripping account of backstabbing, betrayal and murder that will keep readers hooked until the last page – in amongst such intrigue, Ismae and her odd abilities becomes almost superfluous.
It’s often hard to approach a book objectively when it has built up such a positive buzz both on and off the interwebs and Grave Mercy is a case in point. Sadly, it doesn’t entirely live up to the hype but still has much to commend it. While the characterisation is more than a little flat, the story is nothing but compelling and if the core premise doesn’t entirely work then this is compensated by Le Fevers’ skilled use of language and her often gorgeously visual writing. First in a series, Grave Mercy works equally well on its own terms leaving only a few loose threads at the end. Whether these are enough to attract readers to book two only time will tell because while aspects of the title work beautifully, it just isn’t quite the sum of its individual parts.
Grave Mercy is available now. Thank you to the publisher for providing me with this book to review.