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Joint Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Title: Grave Mercy

Author: Robin LaFevers

Genre: Historical, Paranormal, Young Adult

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: April 3rd 2012
Hardcover: 549 pages

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?

Stand alone or series: His Fair Assassin #1

How did we get this book: Bought

Why did we read this book: Well, this is a paranormal historical novel featuring NINJA NUNS. How could we not?


Ana’s Take:

Ismae is a young girl who is able to escape the brutality and abuse of her childhood home and of her new husband by joining a convent where the God of Death is still worshipped and becoming a handmaiden to Death. Blessed with gifts by the God, she trains to become one of his assassins and her newest assignment is at the centre of a palatial intrigue to which she is woefully underprepared.

Grave Mercy is a book with not only a kick-ass premise (NINJA NUNS!) but also a fascinating setting: the pivotal moment in Brittany’s history when Anne of Brittany has become its ruler and must defend it against France oppression. Unfortunately, this book and I didn’t see eye to eye and I ended up putting it aside at around page 350 (of 549). It is a sad day when a book featuring Ninja Nuns doesn’t work for me, but alas.

My problems with Grave Mercy were twofold: first of all there was the writing and then there the small little things that annoyed me. With regards to the writing: I thought there was a lot more telling than showing and an extreme reliance on writing shortcuts.

We are told more than we actually see a lot of what happens in the story not only in terms of plot but also of character development. The most glaring of them are during Ismae stay at the convent where she is supposed to have become this kick-ass assassin. The thing is, we are just told that she has become one – the book lists her achievements rather than showing them and then we must accept it as fact. Similarly all the nuns at the convent are described simply by what they do rather than by who they are. One can argue that the story is not REALLY about Ninja Nuns (what a shame) and more about the political intrigue and Ismae’s internal conflict. And truth be told I completely appreciate the immense potential for conflict between someone who is trained to act on things by simply killing them versus having to act via diplomacy but unfortunately I don’t think that this is sufficiently well developed. In fact, I found myself becoming increasingly bored with this very storyline – it is just so…bland.

But then there are the writing shortcuts too. This is one of my biggest pet peeves: in which we are simply told what is happening to a character with familiar clichéd turns of phrase that are used in order to hastily convey emotions. Take these few examples from Grave Mercy:

The thrill of success is still humming through my veins

humiliation courses through my veins

certainty flows in my veins

shock simmering in my veins

my blood is singing in my veins

relief sings so sharply in my veins

Holy Mortain, her veins must be extremely congested with so many things running/humming/singing/simmering/ etc through them. I could continue but you get my drift.

And then there were those things that made me stop and question everything I was reading. It annoyed me that there is a complete lack of questioning on her part about being a killer – even though she has been brought up within a religious environment and joins a convent, it doesn’t seem to occur to her that killing might be a little bit against the usual precepts of her church? I get that this is supposed to be explained by the fact that the God they worship (now turned a saint) is a God of Old and they are following the “old ways” rather than the new church but still, it just doesn’t ring true. Similarly, the book starts with Ismae getting married to an abusive husband. Although they never get around to actually consummating the marriage and she flees soon after it, she had been married at a church by a priest who actually follows her own faith and yet there is nary a thought about these vows and she doesn’t think about that marriage anymore.

Then, there is the fact that when she is about to leave the convent she is given a special knife which can kill a person if only so much it touches skin. So tell me again what is the point of all the kick ass training these women went through if all they need is a Special Magical Knife that kills effortlessly?

Finally, my last nit-picky comment. Something that made me think: I have seen this book lauded as a feminist read because of the powerful female characters and the ninja nuns. But is this really a true feminist read just because of that? I mean, ALL OF THEIR ENEMIES are men. Whenever they are talking about their skills at the convent or speak about their enemies, these are all men. So, in truth, even though these characters are all ninja female assassins, their entire world STILL evolve around MEN. Even their god is a male god. Just some food for thought.

I do appreciate the intentions and think they are laudable especially when it comes to giving power to these powerless girls after they have suffered abuse. I just wish this thread had been better developed beyond “let’s give them weapons and make them kill men”. In fairness, I stopped reading before the ending, so this might have been addressed after all. I just couldn’t care enough to carry on and find out for myself.

Grave Mercy really didn’t float my boat. A shame.

Thea’s Take:

I’m of two minds when it comes to Grave Mercy. On the one hand, there are clearly some significant drawbacks to the writing and pacing of the novel, and I agree with some of Ana’s criticisms wholeheartedly. On the other, I personally LOVE this type of fantasy/spy/assassin/political intrigue with a dash of romance type of story. And despite the book’s missteps (particularly with regard to writing style), I found myself really enjoying – heck, loving! – the book, especially once it hits its stride after the first few chapters.

So, first the bad. As Ana details in her take on the book, the writing for Grave Mercy leaves much to be desired. Personally, I am not a fan of the first person present tense as a narrative choice – especially not in a historical fantasy novel – as it tends to lend a strange robotic quality to the protagonist. Such is the case with Ismae in her narrative. Compounding the problem is the very tell-y nature of the writing. Not only are Ismae’s veins chock full of all sorts of craziness, but she also oscillates between incredibly HOT or freezing COLD throughout the novel. Example:

A fierce heat rises inside of me and Heat rushes into my cheeks

He pulls me closer, so that I feel the heat rising off his body, warm and smelling faintly of some spice. (THEA’S NOTE: I really, really hate this sentence. The only worse offender: “He smelled warm and musky and undeniably MALE.” Gag.)

His grip is firm,and it is as if the heat from his hand burns through all the layers between us

And so on and so forth. This is annoying. ALSO annoying is the fact that Ismae’s emotions are plainly TOLD instead of experienced. Not to mention the entire glossing over of Ismae’s training to become a killer assassin badass ninja nun! In the span of 3 pages, Ismae learns ALL THE THINGS and is a badass ready to go on her first assignment. I abhor shortcuts. I want to read about her missteps and training, I want to experience her triumphs and failures! Unfortunately, we are deprived of this early in the novel. Add this to the other issues that are prevalent early in the book – Ana’s notes about the Old Ways/Gods, the dubious message that ALL MEN MUST DIE, the snicker-inducing appearance of a Magic!Knife! – and I can easily understand why some are inspired to put the book down and write it off as a DNF.


All these things said, the book takes off once Ismae is assigned to become a spy in the Britton court, working with (and against, in a nice double twist) the mysterious Gavriel Duval – under the guise of being his “cousin” (which everyone in the palace immediately takes to mean his mistress). HERE is where Ismae comes into her own, where she begins to question the teachings of her God, of her devout sisterhood, and of the “justice” of unyielding death. Here she learns that not all men are evil, and that some – even those marked by her God Mortain – deserve a chance at redemption. Here is where we learn that while Ismae has skill as an assassin, she is not infallible, and lacks grace, finesse and diplomacy. By these latter two thirds of the novel, all the complexity that is missing from the earlier chapters comes into play full force. And I LOVED IT ALL.

I love the idea of this sisterhood of assassins and the fantastic elements with those “marked” to die apparent to the handmaidens of Mortain.

I love the drama that is tearing apart the court, and the devotion that Duval and Ismae have to their young, strong Duchess – the same proud ruler that so many are trying to overthrow, enslave through marriage, or kill.

And yes, I love the love story between Ismae and Duval, as predictable as it might seem, because there is something about these two characters that feels utterly sincere.

So there you have it. A Smugglerific disagreement. I truly enjoyed the book, absolutely recommend it, and cannot wait for more. Bring it on, Dark Triumph.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.

I am told my father flew into a rage and raised his hand to my mother even as she lay weak and bleeding on the birthing bed. Until the herbwitch pointed out to him that if my mother had lain with the god of death, surely He would not stand idly by while my father beat her.

I risk a glance up at my husband-to-be, Guillo, and wonder if my father has told him of my lineage. I am guessing not, for who would pay three silver coins for what I am? Besides, Guillo looks far too placid to know of my true nature. If my father has tricked him, it will not bode well for our union. That we are being married in Guillo’s cottage rather than a church further adds to my unease.

I feel my father’s heavy gaze upon me and look up. The triumph in his eyes frightens me, for if he has triumphed, then I have surely lost in some way I do not yet understand. Even so, I smile, wanting to convince him I am happy—for there is nothing that upsets him more than my happiness.

But while I can easily lie to my father, it is harder to lie to myself. I am afraid, sorely afraid of this man to whom I will now belong. I look down at his big, wide hands. Just like my father, he has dirt caked under his fingernails and stains in the creases of his skin. Will the semblance end there? Or will he, too, wield those hands like a cudgel.


Ana: DNF: Did Not Finish

Thea: 7 – Very Good, verging on an 8

Reading Next: Ship of Souls by Zetta Elliott

Buy the Book:

Ebook available for kindle US, kindle UK, google, nook, kobo and sony

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  • April Books & Wine
    May 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm

    I’m with Thea on this, I really liked Grave Mercy when it picked up. Like, courtly intrigue and spies and assassins are my kryptonite, I can’t resist them.

  • Has
    May 18, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I know this book has brought out mixed reactions, although for me I am in the firmly love camp although there is certainly flaws. But I loved the political intrigue which was well drawn out and plotted. I suspect the final book in the trilogy will focus on the convent because the second book is going to cover Sybella and that also promises to be a good one. She really stood out for me as a character and I wished there was more of her in the book!

  • Angie
    May 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I’m sorry it didn’t work for you, Ana.

    I have to agree with Thea. Really enjoyed this one. Particularly the political intrigue, relationship between Ismae and Duval, and that ending. 🙂

  • LisaC
    May 18, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    I really enjoyed Grave Mercy. I liked the characters, and enjoyed the evolution evolution of Ismae’s relationships with Duval, the convent and the saint /god Mortain. Too bad it’s such a long time till the next one!

  • a. knight @ paranormal indulgence
    May 18, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    You got that right, Thea. Duval and Ismae were the total genuine article. And frankly I’m not all that nit-picky so I didn’t even notice these things until you guys pointed them out. Reading through it objectively I get the irritation but it went right over my head. I hearted this book tons!

  • Elaine
    May 18, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Oh yes, I totally agree about the telling, not showing comment. It bothered me because there was so much potential there.
    Aside from how Ismae learned all those skills, I wanted to know more about her friendship with Sybella and Annith. From the brief scenes we get in the book, I would say they’re pretty close but I want to be shown more nuances in their friendship because it would be so interesting, they’d be gossiping about spying tactics and fighting techniques. And I also want more of the nuns! They get very little characterization in the book but I bet they’re awesome.

    However I really enjoyed this book though and I’m even more excited to read Sybella’s story because I think she has way more issues than Ismae and has had a harder road to take (not that Ismae’s life is easy). Plus it includes a wounded knight which is always a plus for me.

  • Estara
    May 19, 2012 at 5:05 am

    Yes, I read some LJ reviews about this book which made me think I wouldn’t much like it either, Ana.

    Well, there’s still Lord of the Two Lands on your TBR pile ^^. Although that can’t be called feminist in empowering all females – Meriamon is a special case and she’s mostly surrounded by men, too. But she isn’t a Mary Sue and she has to work hard to reach her goal which means the men eventually accept her value.

    For a girl really having to work at her skills and being beat down regularly and feeling like a lab rat being experimented upon, but never giving up and making herself a space in her new world, read Andrea Höst’s Touchstone Trilogy!

  • Misti
    May 19, 2012 at 7:34 am

    I agree with Thea also. It had some problems, but if you can overlook them, it’s a fun story and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to the next one.

  • Candice
    May 19, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    I fell in love with this book. I definitely think the pros (the awesome story) outweigh the cons (writing). Great reviews both though!

  • Ashley Prince
    May 20, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    I am definitely with Thea on this review. I am absolutely in love with this book. I can’t wait to read the sequel.

    Great joint review! I love seeing two sides lined up.

  • loonigrrl
    May 20, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I’m in the Ana camp on this one – I had the same problems with it. I was very excited about the premise, but I thought the writing was very poor. The story itself was rather flawed- the marked thing alone was bugging me the entire book and while she explained it away at the end, I grew increasingly frustrated that she wasn’t questioning it sooner. Oh, and the romance was another thing. A good idea, but predictable and when it happened, I was left scratching my head, trying to figure out when they fell in love. I really struggled to finish it, and I don’t think I’ll be reading the sequel.

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  • Heidi
    May 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    I’m sorry this one didn’t really work for you Ana, but I have to admit that I love seeing your joint reviews where you and Thea differ so vastly on a book. It’s an always helpful reminder that what works for some of us will really not work for all of us! I’m with Thea on this one though! I loved the political machinations and the romance, and really can’t wait for Dark Triumph.

  • janicu
    May 25, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Dude. OK, so I plan to read this one so I sort of glanced at your reviews and skipped ahead to the ratings. I think I tend to agree with Ana more, so that may not bode well. I’m pretty surprised by who liked it and who didn’t finish here though. I wouldn’t have guessed this was the way it would go! Makes me pretty curious about the book. 😉

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  • HarleyQuinzel
    August 22, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Huh I liked this pretty much the same as u 🙂

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