This mix of historical fiction and fantasy is set in Brittany, in 1488. Annith, 17, has spent her whole life at the Brittany Convent of Saint Mortain. Mortain is the god of Death, but those who follow him do not see Death as the grim reaper, but as a positive force forming part of the inevitable circle of life. As Annith explains:
“I was raised to see Mortain as the first among the Nine [lesser gods], for without Death, there could be no life. Just as the roots of living trees must reach down past the loam and soil to find sustenance from the Underworld, so too are we sustained by Death. …others have forgotten this side of Him, forgotten that without Death, there would be no life. Without an ending, how can anything begin anew?”
This, she continues, is the beauty and promise of Death. And Annith wants nothing more than to be a worthy servant of Mortain.
Mysteriously, the Abbess of the Convent refuses to send Annith out on any assassination missions, although Annith is more qualified to go than anyone else. When the Abbess leaves to go consult at the Court of the Breton Duchess at Rennes, a frustrated Annith decides to follow the Abbess and confront her.
On the way, Annith encounters a large group of hellequins – dead “hunters” who collect the souls of the wicked or lost and help these souls find their way to the Underworld. Hellequins have volunteered for this job in an effort to atone for their darkest sins. Their leader, Balthazaar, takes personal charge of protecting Annith and rescuing her from harm. But who is really rescuing whom?
Discussion: This blend of history, fantasy, and romance will appeal to fans of Diana Gabaldon. It is Book Three of a companion book series, so that one can read it as part of the series or as a standalone. It is hard not to adore all of these characters as they struggle to figure out who they are, and if there is room for love in their lives. Even the hellequins – these men of the shadows – are full of subtleties. As Annith muses at one point:
“We are all of us, gods and mortals, made up of many pieces, some of them broken, some of them scarred, but none of them the sum and total of who we are.”
And as for good female role models, these daughters of the Convent of Mortain are full of courage, intelligence, warmth, and humor, as well as spit and fire and the determination to make their own decisions about their futures.
I also like the fact that in spite of injecting a lot of fantasy into the action, the author really doesn’t mess with the historical data at all, except for some compression of the timeline of events. The fantasy not only adds interest and excitement, but serves to set into relief what it means to be human.
Evaluation: This is a very good story, with an interesting historical background and plenty of “swoony” moments. It’s too bad the series won’t be continued. (It has an “ending” and doesn’t really need to be continued, but I liked the characters enough not to want to see them go.)
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014