Once upon a time, my book sister, Heather De La Garza, and I had a book club–a YA Dystopian Book Club to be exact. Spurred on by our mutual love of teenagers in mortal peril, we read through many an iteration of world-ending scenarios. Somewhere along the way our book club got much bigger and turned into us just reading whatever the hell we felt like reading. That said, our love for Young Adult Literature runs deep, and our latest book club pick, Grave Mercy, brought us back to our YA roots.
Fleeing an abusive arranged marriage, Ismae is smuggled away to the Convent of Saint Mortain, God of Death. There she learns the art of assassination–poison, weaponry, seduction, and killing. Ismae’s first assignment as a Handmaiden of Death sends her to the royal court of Breton in the company of the handsome (of course) nobleman Duval. There she must protect the Duchess Anne and unravel a tangled web of political intrigue, treason, and attempted assassination. The challenge? Staying true to her mission and convent while nursing a pretty serious attraction to Duval.
Grave Mercy is really a historical fiction whodunnit with a secondary romance and just a dash of fantasy. Ismae is a formidable female protagonist. Although she suffers from many of the annoying tendencies that plague first-person narrators in YA literature–self-absorption, naivete, stubbornness to the point of willful ignorance–she’s quite a likeable lead. This is a credit to LaFevers, who never lets the story get bogged down in Ismae’s self-consciousness and manages to keep the storyline moving. The romance between Ismae and Duval is heightened by the political mystery (Who’s trying to kill Anne?!?), which adds an interesting twist to an already unconventional pairing. To complicate the Breton-noble-meets-teenage-assassin love story, Duval’s loyalties are repeatedly called into question. Ismae is forced to reconcile her devotion to her convent and the Duchess with the slow-growing attraction she feels to Duval. If he is indeed the traitor, she must be the one to bring him down.
This romance is a very slow-burn, with probably the least sexy sex scene I’ve ever read in young adult or romance literature. The history and political intrigue is what kept me reading; the romance was just a slight bonus. The precarious world of the 16th century Breton court was fascinating, and the layer of fantasy (in the form of the God of Death) never felt overpowering or out of place. In fact, I’d hesitate to recommend this novel to fantasy and romance readers, but if you’re a lover of historical fiction in general, you’ll find it difficult to put this book down.
Rating: B+ (unexpected and surprisingly enjoyable)