Summary: 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?
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My review: A unique twist on historical fiction, the real historical figures and events associated with Brittany's stand against the French crown's encroachment is retold with an infusion of pagan religion and imagined magic powers.
Ismae has always been shunned, ever since her mother hired an herb witch to purge her womb of pregnancy and Ismae survived the attempted abortion. She is deemed a demon, a daughter of Death. At 17, her father can be finally rid of her after marrying her off to a brutal farmer in their village. Moments after the wedding, Ismae is rescued by a priest of the ancient, pagan religion and taken to the convent of Mortain—of Death—where she learns that she is, in fact, Death's daughter, and therefore blessed with certain gifts and abilities that will help him do his bidding. Ismae is finally given power over her own fate, power over a cruel patriarchy that has harmed her time and again, and a way to take revenge. She has no hesitation about life in a convent, but can she really commit to becoming an assassin?
When Ismae is sent to Brittany's court to help protect the 12-year-old Duchess, who is in danger of being sold to any number of terrible French suitors, she is fully committed to serving her father, Death, and the convent. Her assignment is not what she expected and the intrigue and lies at court whisper of a betrayal that Ismae barely understands. Amidst it all, she must deal with a different kind of betrayal as she finds herself falling in love with the man she is meant to kill.
Grave Mercy plays with dark subject matter, but does so in a way that is not gruesome or abhorrent. The assassins do kill numerous people - but only those marked by Death himself, giving way to some kind of moral code that helps justify all the bloodshed. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the characters, rooting for Ismae every step of the way. I'm a big fan of historical fiction and I was not familiar with this piece of history (magical infusion aside) from the 15th century. It wasn't until the Afterword that I learned that the story setting and many characters were real as well as certain elements from the old religion. A perfect escapist novel that had a little more meat on its bones than the usual fare.
My Rating: 4 stars
Sum it up: Romance, intrigue, magic, beautiful dresses, a historical setting, and kick-butt heroines? I'm in!
For the sensitive reader: This book is about an order of assassins. As such, there are murders/assassinations, but there is a moral code that "justifies" them in context of the story. The description of the violence is not extreme or gratuitous. There is mention of abortion and allusions of domestic abuse. There is a love story and a non-graphic love scene.