By Katie Stockdale
There’s something exhilarating in the mystery of death, and Robin LaFevers captures this perfectly in her book Grave Mercy. The story is set in 15th century Brittany, a small territory that was swallowed by France in the middle ages. Ismae is a peasant in a small village, but a special one. The Greeks would call her a demigod, asher father is Brittany’s god of death, Mortain.
Marked by a scar upon her back from the poison her mother used to attempt an abortion, Ismae is rejected by the man to whom her father sold her. Rescued from his cellar by a priest and a herbwitch (a village doctor) she is taken to the Convent of Mortain, where nuns train novices to be assassins that follow the will of their god. Thrilled to be one of the Handmaidens of Death, Ismae trains hard and gleefully accepts her assignments which lead her to the court of Brittany under the care of a count(?) suspected of duplicity. Her goal is simple and terribly complex: protect the young duchess of Brittany, from threats outside her country and within it.
Although the idea of women assassins is not new to the world of literature, they are still stimulating. It is refreshing to read a story of weapons training, poison and intrigue in which the character has more than words in way of weapons. Of course, Ismae has her failings. She is not perfect but troubles are relatable. No one is perfect, and characters that are completely aloof to all feelings are unbelievable, even if the love story of hate-turned-love is a bit clichéd.
But the true power of LaFevers’s story is how immersive it is. She does not balk at including all the French names and words, nor has she modernized the language. The events that take place in Brittany fall in line with actual history, and the duchess in the story bears the name of the duchess at the time, Anne. The dark politics of the book, as well as the overarching conspiracies, give it the bent of actuality. LeFever’s novel clearly depicts a state just barely holding on to sovereignty and Brittany itself lost this sovereignty during Anne’s lifetime.
It is not only the history that rings true, but the serious themes of the novel. There are several moments when events become, for our 21st century moral standards, deplorable. In just the first pages of the novel, Ismae is sold to a man, who then tries to rape her, only to lock her in his cellar upon seeing her scar and realizing her identity. Later in the novel, the child duchess Anne, has an insistent suitor old enough to be her grandfather forcefully pressing marriage at every turn.
It is not just the mistreatment of women that is shown, but indeed the way in which people were perceived as dispensable by the nobility. Anne’s trust of her own brother is constantly called into question because he is a bastard, born by the former duke’s mistress. Even Ismae is for a moment unnerved by this knowledge. Almost everyone in the court acts for their own interests instead of guiding Anne as they are supposed to. And as Ismae struggles through this, she looks desperately for the true traitor.
But even Ismae’s job, in fact her life’s work, is brought into question. She has been raised to believe that the nuns are shown who Mortain wishes to die. If Mortain wishes a death, she will see the mark of Mortain (a black mark on a person’s skin only those who serve Mortain can see, which signals approaching death) and she is to kill this person. And yet slowly doubt begins to color her work. She wonders if the nuns could have read the signs falsely, or if the mark means the must die. She realizes that there can be love, even at the heart of treachery.
And this realization gives the novel depth. As Ismae struggles to place her loyalties she becomes more than an on-the-page-character. She becomes real, and relatable. Her struggle to decide who she is and what she believes is completely understandable, and right now with the world full of confusing and polarized opinions, it’s something anyone can connect to.
The story is not rainbows and butterflies. It’s honest, often in brutal ways, and can be dark. But as Ismae comes to realize, darkness can give way to light. She learns to accept both of them in her life and to appreciate them for what they are. Grave Mercy is a high paced, quick read, and the series is already complete, the next books being Dark Triumph and Mortal Heart. For a fantasy full of dark magic and a clever story, look no further.
Katie Stockdale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.