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.One month ago, I complained about the absolutely awful summer reading shelf at my store. One week after that, I offered my own suggestions with some heavy input from you all. We ended up with a pretty awesome shelf, in my opinion. One of the books that I advocated was Grave Mercy, a wickedly awesome novel about a nun assassin. That's right, a nun assassin. With a crossbow.
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?
Grave Mercy is one of my favorite books of 2012. Heck, it's one of my favorite books ever. I handsell it every chance I get at my store. You can read why in my review, but I shall simply repeat two words - nun assassins. And add a few more - Duvall, one of the swooniest heroes ever.
In order to further hype this book that I LOVE, I invited its author, Ms. Robin LaFevers, by for an interview.
Shelver: You've mentioned before how you were taught in a Catholic school and how you came across Duchess Anne's story in your research, but what's the very first thing that brought Ismae's story into your head? At what point did you see an image or read a snippet and go, "Hmm, that's interesting. Someone should write a story about that."?
Robin LaFevers:It didn’t happen quite like that—there was never a single or initial image that sparked things. What happened was that I had this insatiable itch to write something bigger and darker and more complex than my middle grade books. I was also aware of how hard it was to find the type of books that I loved; the big, sweeping historical epics with a touch of fantasy, and just how few of those had been written for YA readers.
I knew my heroine would struggle with issues of power, and that she would have a chance at transformative love, but would be called upon to make nearly impossible choices.
So I had this strong sense of the type of story I wanted to tell, and I was casting about, looking for the perfect canvas. That was when I began running into research snippets that really began to feed that idea; the twelve year old duchess inheriting a kingdom, old gods worshipped as patron saints, and convents where woman had more freedom behind the walls than they did in their normal societal roles. Those ideas began coalescing in a very intertwined, chaotic way rather than a nice, neat series of stepping stones.
S: Grave Mercy isn't your first book. You have two entire middle-grade series that are quite popular, right? (Feel free to pause and brag a bit.) So how did you get into writing in the first place?
The Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist series is aimed at slightly younger readers and is about a boy whose parents are declared missing at sea. He is then sent off to a relative he didn’t even know he had, and learns that the world’s mythical creatures are real, and it is his job to take care of them. [Shelver note: I'm probably going to have to pick up a copy of the first Nathaniel book, because it sounds awesome.]
I’d always wanted to be a writer but the truth is, I didn’t have the courage of my convictions and since all the adults in my life were vehemently against it (too competitive, too financially insecure, etc.) I didn’t pursue it in college. Instead I meandered around a bunch of unsatisfying jobs. But when I stayed at home with my own two kids, we would read for hours every day and I remembered how much I loved writing and books and especially how the books of our childhood and teen years become a part of our emotional DNA.
That reawakened my desire to be a writer and with no naysayers standing over me telling me no, I decided to give it a try. I took night classes, weekend workshops, attended conferences, and wrote thousands of crappy words and plenty of stinker manuscripts. After about eight years, I connected with an agent at an SCBWI conference, sold my first book, and have been writing ever since. I’ve written full time since 2003, although admittedl, there have been some very thin years.
S: Grave Mercy is filled with crossbows and swords and poisons and all sorts of other delightful things. What kind of research did you do for THAT aspect of your story and do you have any related stories to share?
RL: Well, I was raised with a passel of brothers and had two sons of my own. They’ve been involved in martial arts and archery over the years and have been fascinated with knives since before they could walk, so I guess you could say it was a long held, familial interest. In fact, for one of my son’s school projects, he and my husband made a medieval longbow, so we spent quite a bit of time researching that and learning about bows and archery. I’ve shot them, but I’m nowhere near as good a shot as Ismae. :) (Also, the bowstrings hurt when they twang your wrist!) The poisons research came purely from books. There were so many fascinating little tidbits and facts about poison, much of it made even more interesting and far-fetched because it was filtered through a rather non-scientific lens of earlier times.
S: A whole bunch of people have been talking about YA being too dark, too explicit. How did you find a balance between being exploring the darker aspects of the book and not getting TOO dark? Did you tend to censor yourself, or did you dive head-first into the violence and sensuality and have to pull back later "for the sake of the impressionable audience"?
RL: Agh. The dreaded too dark, too explicit issue! I was actually just talking about this with my husband this morning. As writers we have so many choices before us, what to write, how to write it, what tone we want the story to have, what issues we want the story to explore. I sometimes wish I wrote simpler stories, with less dark undercurrents, but those aren’t the stories I’m drawn to. Probably because my own childhood and teen years were pretty fraught with shadows and dysfunction. Escaping into books is where I found some of life’s most important truths, truths that the adults in my life wouldn’t—or couldn’t, share with me. But those things I learned from books saved me in so many ways, gave me hope, helped me see beyond the immediate moment, helped me see what other sorts of lives and choices were out there. So while light happy books are wonderful ways to escape and relax, they don’t fill my personal well either as a reader or a writer.
Exploring the shadow side of life and shining light into the dark corners does, and I can only hope that the truths I explore in my books are helping some reader somewhere, giving her the answers or affirmations she might need in her own life.
As for whether I had to be pulled back from violence or sensuality—no. The opposite, in fact. I have a pretty well developed internal set of brakes that I sometimes applied too soon. Acquired, no doubt, from Catholic school all those years ago…
S: You mention on your site that you can't watch scary movies. Given the whole nun assassins and Death as a patron saint thing, would you be able to make it through a Grave Mercy movie? (Which I would totally see, btw.)
RL: Ha! Funny question. I actually don’t consider Grave Mercy to be scary, so yes, I would absolutely be able to make it through a Grave Mercy movie! For me, scary movies are more true horror, things jumping out and wanting to kill you, like the first Alien movie, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Body Double, The Ring, things like that.
S: We know that book #2 (Dark Triumph) is about Sybella, that magnificent she-devil friend of Ismae. Can you give us some kind of idea of what to look forward to? Something drool-worthy!
RL: Ah, Sybella. Well, her story is much darker than Grave Mercy, so if you like dark, that might be good news. Sybella’s story is also a more personal one that Ismae’s, so there is less political intrigue and more personal demons (figuratively speaking). As for drool worthy, well, let me just say this: If you haven’t seen the bleeding, dead body, then nothing is certain. :)
S: Any chance we'll hear about any other "saints" in the next two books, or will St. Mortain rule the roost on his own?
RL: Yes, some of the other saints will be explored in the upcoming books. Saint Mer, Saint Brigantia, and one of the earlier, darker gods that didn’t quite make the transition to saint.
S: What's one book you've read recently that rocked your socks?
RL: I’ve recently read Silent by Michele Sagara, a ghost story which I loved and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo. Both were fantastic! Any book that shuts down my internal editor and lets me just be a reader is a big hit! [Shelver note: I haven't read Silent, but I COMPLETELY AGREE on Shadow and Bone, and the fact that two authors that I adore are squealing over each other makes me very happy.]
So there you have it. I'd like to thank Ms. LaFevers for taking time amidst her busy schedule to answer my questions and for answering so excellently! Really, if you haven't read Grave Mercy, you need to go NOW. Danger, intrigue, betrayal, romance, and crossbows - what more can you ask for? If you have already read this delightful tale, please take a moment and give Ms. LaFevers some praise in the comments. I'm sure she'd appreciate it.
For more information about Grave Mercy and Ms. LaFevers, please visit her two websites, one for Grave Mercy, and one for her MG series. The Grave Mercy site in particular gives you some great background on the legitimate historical events that inspired the book! Also, you can follow her on Twitter. I do. It's fun.