Review of “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

I don’t know the proper name for this hybrid genre – historical fiction plus fantasy and science fiction – but this mix has been used to good effect by some excellent writers including Stephen King and Neal Stephenson, to name just two.

Whatever it’s called, Grave Mercy is based on 15th Century facts, with some paranormal and fairy tale tropes thrown into the mix.

The story pivots around the real Duchess Anne of Brittany, her fictional half-brother Gavriel Duval, and the fictional novitiate of the fictional Convent of St. Mortain, Ismae Rienne. St. Mortain is God of Death, and the convent is dedicated to serving him.

Ismae bears a scar on her back that identifies her as having been sired by Death himself. She is shunned by all in her village, and escapes to the convent to be among those who will accept her. At St. Mortain, she and the other novitiates are trained to be instruments of Death, which means, as the Abbess explains to Ismae, that she will learn “more ways to kill a man than you imagined possible.” The Abbess asks Ismae to swear to obey Mortain in anything he asks of her. The catch is, the nuns in the abbey decide what it is that Mortain is asking.

Ismae drinks the Koolaid:

“I am a handmaiden of Death. I walk in His dark shadow and do His bidding. Serving Him is my only purpose in this life…”

It turns out that Mortain supports the Duchess against the French [sort of by the same logic that causes rival football teams to insist that their side is backed by Jesus]. Ismae is sent to Anne’s court to follow Anne’s half-brother (and chief advisor) Duval around and see if she thereby gets any insight into who is undermining the Duchess. She is also charged with the duty to slay enemies named to her by the Abbess via carrier raven. But there are so many enemies around, it’s difficult figuring out who is a traitor and who is loyal. The Chancellor of Brittany, Viscount Crunard, also advises the Abbess on his theories of who has been naughty and who has been nice, and the Abbess in turn gives Ismae the bird. (So to speak.)

But a worm of doubt seeks its way into Ismae via the noble Duval. He has this exchange with Ismae:

“Doesn’t it worry you, that you understand nothing of how they make their decisions? What if they make a mistake?

‘A mistake?’ My cheeks grow hot at the suggestion. ‘I do not see how they can, milord, since their hand is guided by the saint Himself. Indeed, to suggest such a thing reeks of blasphemy to me.’

It is not the saint I doubt, demoiselle, only the humans who interpret His wishes. In my experience, humans are all too fallible.’”

You have to love Duval. Not only is he the perfect sweetheart, but he elevates the intellectual level of the novel by leaps and bounds. Indeed, the problem of separating the word of God from interpreters still plagues us to this day, as we have seen most tragically from the crisis of priestly abuse, often justified as being what God wants.

But Duval doesn’t only cause Ismae to doubt because of his mind. She finds herself falling for him, bringing her faith to a crisis when the word from the bird orders death to Duval.

Good Things:

Self defense for girls! These novitiates learn all the necessary skills for fending off agressors.

History! All of the plot background – from the conflict between France and Brittany to the dilemma of who the Duchess would marry, hews pretty close to the facts as we know them.

Anne, Duchess of Brittany 1477 – 1514

Physical Perfection Gives Way to Nuance! Ismae is physically scarred; Duval is physically scarred; Duval’s friend Beast – the ugliest man Ismae has ever seen – is big-hearted, kind, and Ismae comes to see him as someone she loves like family; Duval’s friend De Lornay – Ismae loathes him at first because he is physically beautiful – seems haughty and hostile, but when Ismae finally lets down her defensiveness enough to get to know him, she finds a heart of gold. And all those bad guys? Ismae learns to see in their hearts as well, and finds that there is generally a reason for the evil they do, a reason that touches chords of sympathy in her.

This means Ismae is not as one-note as her Dad, Death, but maybe he’s got nuance too, which leads us to….

Bad Things:

Make up your mind, Mortain! Are you the God of Death, or the God of Mercy and Love? And why are you on Brittany’s side against France anyway?

A cure for poison: who knew it was sex?

The flimsy excuse for Duval to get Ismae’s clothes off to help her clean up (wait: doesn’t she have all these maids-in-waiting?) and the even flimsier excuse for Ismae to get Duval’s clothes off: “just checking for poison, milord….” (I must remember that one! Yo! Joe Manganiello! I need to perform a toxicity check asap!)

And, sigh, I have to add writing to the Bad Things. The writing isn’t so hot.

And the nuance I talked about under Good Things? It’s sadly missing in the Abbess, who could play Snow White’s Evil Stepmother if she loses her job at the Convent.

Evaluation: In spite of the Bad Things, I think the Good Things outweigh them, and I enjoyed this. Kind of. Yes, I’ll be back for the next volume in the series. (Ha ha, you thought it wasn’t a series!)

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012

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16 Responses to Review of “Grave Mercy” by Robin LaFevers

  1. sandynawrot says:

    I’m laughing my ass off here. I have seen you in the mood in which I believe you wrote this post! I’m intrigued by so much here, I can’t even list them all. Sired by Death? (Can you tell me what this scar looks like? Need to check my kids.) Sex cures poison? Rock on!

  2. It must not be too bad if you’re going back for me. I don’t think this is for me.

  3. Yo! Joe Manganiello! I need to perform a toxicity check asap!)

    I just sputtered my coffee everywhere!! I loooved that!!

    I was really hot for this book until reviews started coming in — much like yours, they’re sort of in the middle. I’m still curious, but not rushing to get to it.

  4. Vasilly says:

    I don’t know if I really want to read this one now. I love good writing. It’s the thing I live for, highlighting passages to share and wishing that I was the one who wrote them.

    Sex as a cure for poison? I’m glad my ex never thought of that excuse. 😉

  5. I was glad to read your final assessment, because despite the bad things the good things had me convinced. I’ll have to see if the library has this.

  6. Haha! Of course it’s a series!
    And, I’ll have to remember that toxicity check trick too. 😉

  7. Yup, in agreement here. Enjoyed the book, but there were times I was thinking, hmm, that is odd.

  8. Jenners says:

    Hi. Just saying hi. Hope the wedding was ok and you didn’t get lung cancer from your visit to Philly!

  9. Excellent review! I’ve seen reviews for this book all over the interwebs but I don’t think any of them were as interesting or in-depth as this one’s. I liked how the book had the characters interpret the God of Death as a saint in order to fit into the Catholic beliefs of the time. There’s a patron saint for just about everything (Clare of Assisi is the patron saint of television, FOR REALS).

    And as for sex curing poison? LOL – did she have to suck the poison out? LOLOLOL

  10. Jenny says:

    The writing indeed does not seem too hot — I don’t know why this is, but a red flag for writing badness for me is always when the first-person protagonist’s cheeks grow hot at some suggestion.

  11. softdrink says:

    You almost had me sold at Kool-Aid. But bad writing? That’s gonna be the deal breaker. Unless there are Oreos to go with the Kool-Aid?

  12. NOOOOOO! Not another series!!!!

  13. Beth F says:

    LOLOLOL: “A cure for poison: who knew it was sex?” I love your bad list. Tooooooooo funny. I have a copy of this staring at me, maybe I’ll push it to the side.

  14. zibilee says:

    Oh, this book is tempting to me, and the good kind of outweighs the bad. I don’t mind a little cheese in my historical fantasy mish-mash, and I am fascinated by this bird delivering death messages. Jill, you always find the best books! But another series….oh no!

  15. stacybuckeye says:

    Please don’t ever tell my husband the cure for poison. I’ll never get anything done around here!

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