I don’t know the proper name for this hybrid genre – historical fiction plus fantasy and sci fi – 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.
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.
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….
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!)
Published by Houghton Mifflin, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012