Saturday, April 7, 2012

Review: GRAVE MERCY by Robin LaFevers

Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?
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?
Thwarted arranged marriages, female assassins, life-or-death stakes, a reeeeeeally awesome love interest, AND a killer dress-and-crossbow combo on the cover? Great heavens to Betsy, I'm in love.

Ismae is one genuine kick-butt female. She has to be, really. Her mother tried to abort her, and though Ismae survived, she was left with a hideous scar that runs diagonally across her back from shoulder blade to hip, marking her as a daughter of Death. No, literally, a daughter of Death. This makes her a freak, and a scary one at that, a fact that her father and other townspeople use to make her life a living hell. Her father even tries to marry her off to a loathsome, brutish pig farmer at the age of fourteen, which is when she is rescued by a local herbwitch and taken to the convent of St. Mortain.

Of course, that's when LaFevers makes a three year leap in time, because what's cooler than watching a girl go from awkward, scared teenie-bopper to fearsome assassin? Skipping the in-between time to get to the big reveal.

Ismae is wicked fierce. She can kill a man in countless ways, from using a thin cord to garrot him, to a crossbow bolt to the forehead, to a knife to the heart. She's pretty handy with poisons, too, seeing as one of her gifts is that she cannot be poisoned. Oh, and she can sense when a person will die by seeing (or sometimes smelling) them, and she can often tell how a person will die, thanks to the black smudge of death St. Mortain leaves on the body.

No wonder she's chosen to take part in protecting the young Duchess Anne against both the invading French army and overbearing suitors intent on stealing her duchy. Given her own background, protecting a girl against being traded like a piece of meat is right up Ismae's alley. Unfortunately, her ticket of entry into court is by posing as the duchess's brother's mistress, a prospect that does not thrill Ismae in the slightest, given that the art of seduction was one course that she barely passed and that said brother, Gavriel Duval, might himself be a traitor.

Where to begin... First, the characters. Wow! Usually, when I read a book, any hint that said book might only be the first in a series makes me cranky. I want a completed story, beginning, middle, and satisfying end. Books that stop half-finished in a blatant ploy to garner interest in a coming sequel irritate me. Yes, even Hunger Games got my goat a bit. But thanks to the characters Robin LaFevers created, I was inwardly begging for a continuation halfway through the book.

Ismae can be a teensy bit flat at times (yes, dear, you hate men, we got it), but I loved her nonetheless. Gavriel Duval is my new YA fiction crush (more on that in a few). And those supporting characters! Magnificent. Their personalities and characteristics were not overemphasized or overlabored in an attempt to hold our interest. They just stepped on the page and could be. Duchess Anne reminded me of Bitterblue from Graceling - older than her years, tough, wise, but still hopeful. Crunard, Rieux, Sybella, and Madame Hivern were satisfyingly three-dimensional. I fell in love with Beast from his first introduction (really, in his own, supporting-character way, he even beats out Ismae for my affections).

All the characters were great because they weren't stereotypes or stock characters, even the ones who only appeared for a few pages here and there. They had secrets and motives and desires and dreams and stories, and I wanted to learn so much more about each and every one of them. And, given that this book is all about treachery and intrigue, I loved that I truly believed that I couldn't fully trust a single soul.

The plot was good and fairly crawling with loathsome baddies. Well, mostly loathsome (see what I said about characters not being stock). The big baddie reveal wasn't quite as unexpected as I had hoped, but I appreciated the tension leading up to the revelation, as well as the motives behind the baddie's actions. I did have two notes of disappointment, but I'll get to that in my paragraph of caveats near the end of my post.

Oh, and the romance! Swoon! Ismae and Duval have that delicious love/hate/I-don't-trust-you-as-far-as-I-can-throw-you thing going on, and it so works. After all, Ismae isn't sure Duval isn't really working against his sister the duchess, and Duval can't be sure that Ismae isn't really on orders from the convent to kill him and/or someone he loves. Yummy, yummy tension. What I like most, though, is that they clearly have reasons to fall in love, reasons that have nothing to do with looks. Ismae mentions Duval's grey eyes a few times, but I honestly couldn't tell you other distinguishing features, or even how old he is. His looks aren't the point. His character and integrity are. Same for Duval's attraction to Ismae. She's smokin' hot, but that wasn't the point. There was no lust at first sight. There was love over months.

I do have a few, teeny caveats. First, the whole Death as a god/saint thing. I understand the appeal of twisting convention on its head here, but I personally was uneasy with the death-worshipping. Part of it is because of my own personal beliefs ("Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?"), part might because of the timing (Easter week is an awkward time to be reading about Death as a good guy). I was expecting some big twist regarding the very nature of Death/St. Mortain, and there was a twist, just not the one I was hoping for. Again, my personal hangup. It's likely that this will not bother most people.

Second, there's a moment near the end of the book where Ismae (rollover to see spoilers) has to save Duval from being poisoned. Again, expecting some wow twist, and what do I get? Sex is the answer! Kiss the man, he gets a little better; give up your virginity and give him a roll in the hay, miracle cure! Lame.

Sorry for the super-long review, but this book was so freaking exciting, and I'm waiting on pins and needles for LaFevers' second installment.

Points Added For: Nun assassins, poisons (love me some poisons), detailed characters, crossbows, Beast, believable and swoon-worthy romance, intricate and unexpected motivations.

Points Subtracted For: De Lornay (both his lack of depth, comparatively speaking, and his duration), certain twists not living up to my expectations, that really lame moment that I mentioned in the spoiler.

Good For Fans Of: Graceling by Kristin Cashore (and presumably Bitterblue, though I haven't read it yet); Terrier (and subsequent sequels) by Tamora Pierce.

Notes For Parents: No language that I can recall (the word "bastard" is used multiple times, but only in the literal, illegitimate sense); several squeamish seductive encounters; at least two attempted rapes (both not graphic and ultimately unsuccessful); one non-explicit sex scene (tasteful fade-to-black employed); violence (not Hunger Games level, but still); a few blush-worthy conversations (who knew French women were known to rogue their nipples?).

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