Brittany, 15th Century. Nuns trained to be assassins. Mystery and intrigue at court. The threat of a French invasion. I have your attention now, don’t I? The plot synopsis for R.L. LaFevers Grave Mercy certainly caught my eye. Grave Mercy is the first in LaFever’s His Fair Assassins series, comprised of books about girls trained in the convent of St. Mortain, the patron saint/god of death. The convent trains these girls to be assassins and carry out the will of St. Mortain by killing those whom he has marked for death. Grave Mercy follows the story of one of these girls named Ismae.
Ismae is a seventeen-year-old girl harboring secrets she doesn’t fully understand. She knows that the scar on her back is from when her mother tried to abort her. She knows her father despises her, and she knows the last thing she wants to do is go through with the marriage he has arranged for her. Luckily, she doesn’t have to. Ismae escapes her small village with the help of a mysterious network of people who takes her to the convent of St. Mortain. It is here that Ismae learns the truth about herself: she is the daughter of Mortain, the god of death, she is immune to poison, and that she is chosen to carry out Mortain’s will.
At the convent the nuns teach Ismae everything she needs to know about being an assassin, from the best ways to kill a man to the best ways to seduce him. After learning about a possible French invasion, the convent sends Ismae to the court of the Duchess of Brittany to sniff out those who would betray the duchess. Ismae is excited for her new mission, but less excited that it means she will have to pose as the mistress of the duchess’ half-brother, Gavriel Duval.
At court, Ismae runs into several complications she was unprepared for. She finds both the French and some of the duchess’ own court to be conspiring against the young duchess. It becomes difficult to decide who is trustworthy and loyal. On top of everything, Ismae finds herself slowly falling in love with the very man the convent suspects is the traitor. And most importantly, Ismae comes to realize that the convent may have misunderstood the signs and purpose of Mortain’s will.
LaFever’s book is an exciting page-turner. The characters are vibrant and real, making it easy for the reader to invest in the story. The story itself is also very engaging. After all, who wouldn’t want to read about assassin nuns? The female assassin character threatens to be cliché, but Ismae’s insecurities about her identity and purpose counteract that in a way that saves her from being a cliché action heroine. Whereas most female heroines are nothing more than badass fighters incapable of showing any weaknesses, like Katsa in Graceling, Ismae’s struggle with her weaknesses and doubt and make her more human, and more of a girl, than other heroines who are fighters with no character depth.
One of the greatest strengths of the novel, though, is how LaFevers makes the reader uncertain of every character’s loyalty. There are a few characters that you know you cannot trust, like the French and Count d’Albret. But the reader, like Ismae, doubts the true purpose of many of the characters, including Duval’s mother and brother, the duchess’ advisors and attendants, and even the convent itself. Betrayal, it seems, could come from anywhere. LaFevers uses this to make the reader share Ismae’s fear for the duchess’ safety and her paranoia that anyone could be the traitor. This doubt of every character’s true loyalty, along with the progressing relationship between Duval and Ismae, keeps the reader hooked through the very last page.