Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

“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?”

I was surprised to find that this novel is classified as young adult.  I think it ended up being based on Ismae’s age, but much of the subject matter is much more advanced than I normally see in a teen novel.  It features assassination, physical abuse, marriage for political gain, and more court intrigue than you can shake a stick at.  I’m honestly not sure if most teenagers will get drawn into this book due to its slower pace and the lesser amount of sheer action.

The one thing that I felt the novel didn’t do all that well was the assassination aspect—and that’s unfortunate, because the entire premise revolves around Ismae’s status as a budding assassin.  Ismae doesn’t get traditional assignments, per se; instead, she has general instructions and looks for signs from the god of death to guide her further.  This means that she goes through most of the novel staring at people to see if they are marked for death.  Only rarely does she see anything that gives her the freedom to act, and if she had been given more of that earlier in the book, the changes to her beliefs at the novel’s end would have worked a little better.

That’s not to say that this is a bad novel.  I enjoyed it quite a lot.  I initially had some trouble getting involved in the plot and getting into the rhythm of the story, but once I did, I found the political maneuvering to be well thought out and solidly plotted.  As the novel progresses, and as events get more complex, I found the book difficult to put down.

One of this book’s strengths is in the minor characters.  Two of the warriors that Ismae is acquainted with don’t get much page time, but LaFevers packs a lot of characterization into what space they do get.  By the end of the story, readers will care about these men, as well as about the princess and others who spend less time on stage than Ismae.  This provides some much needed variation in what could have been a one-person show, but with all the politics and backstabbing, a breadth of personalities helps hold the story together.

While I’m not sure that this novel is really young adult material, it does have a lot going for it.  Older teens and adults will enjoy the rich and intricate plotting, as well as the diverse cast of characters.  Grave Mercy, first in the His Fair Assassin series, packs a lot of punch into a satisfying package.

This review was originally posted on April 4, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

(Description nicked from

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