Monday, December 10, 2012

Grave Mercy Book Review

Author: Robin LaFevers. Release date: 2012. Publisher:  Houghton Mifflin Books for Children. ISBN: 9780547628349.

Annotation: After narrowly escaping an abusive marriage she was forced into, seventeen-year-old Ismae is taken to the Convent of Saint Mortain where she is initiated as a daughter of the god of Death and trained as an assassin. After three years of living in the convent, Ismae is sent to the high court of Brittany to uncover a plot to overthrow the young duchess. Posing as the mistress of the duchess’ older brother, Gavriel Duval, Ismae learns that her training in the convent has not prepared her for the treachery that is part of life in the royal court.

Personal thoughts: I love historical fiction, so I was excited to read that Grave Mercy combines the genre with the paranormal and romance. Although I thought the book was a little long (I know plenty of teens I would try to recommend it to would blanch when seeing its thickness), I did enjoy the story quite a bit. I only knew a little bit about Brittany prior to picking it up, and it inspired me to learn more, something that it is likely to do for young adult readers as well. I also found Ismae to be a very likable character, and enjoyed seeing her walls come down as she began to have feelings for Gavriel. Like I said, some chapters did get to be a bit wordy and some of the subplots could have been eliminated as well, but overall I think this a good choice for a teen reader who wants a mix of history and fantasy. I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Plot summary: Raised by an abusive father and shunned by her village for a large, unsightly birthmark on her back, Ismae Rienne’s life in late 15th-century Brittany has never been easy. After her father forces her into a marriage with a wealthy man in the village, Ismae hopes that her life has taken a turn for the better, only to soon find out that her new husband is just as abusive as her father, savagely beating her on their wedding night. Ismae’s prayers are finally answered, however, when a local priest smuggles her out of the village and takes her to the Convent of Saint Mortain. There Ismae learns that her birthmark is actually a sign that she is a daughter of Saint Mortain, the god of Death, and destined to live in the convent with dozens of other girls, training to become a deadly assassin. Ismae spends three years in the convent before she is charged by the reverend mother to travel to the high court of Brittany to pose as the mistress of the mysterious and handsome Gavriel Duval, brother of the young duchess who is set to rule the country. Duval, along with the reverend mother and one of the duchess’ closest advisors, Chancellor Crunard, fear that traitors are living at court, plotting with the French to overthrow the duchess. The reverend mother and Crunard both fear that Duval might be the one to blame, and it is up to Ismae to determine who is committing treason and, thus, deserves the wrath of Saint Mortain. Soon after arriving at court, however, Ismae realizes that her training at the convent has not prepared her for the treachery that abounds under the duchess’ roof. Ismae can trust no one, even Gavriel, who she finds herself developing feelings for. Can a handmaiden of death truly hope to save a country amidst a sea of traitors?

Review: From veteran author Robin LaFevers comes this epically scaled novel set in 15th century Britanny. The story revolves around seventeen-year-old Ismae Rienne, an assassin trained in the fictitious Convent of Saint Mortain. Several characters in the novel, however, are based on real people, particularly Anne Duchess of Brittany. Readers who are not familiar with Brittany, the small kingdom that became a province of France in 1532, will learn quite a bit about the intricacies involved in the country trying to remain autonomous despite threats from its much larger and more powerful neighbors. The author does a good job of tying the more historical aspects of the novel into Ismae’s story which is more along the lines of what one would expect from a young adult novel. Ismae is a typical teen heroine with a bonus: she is a deadly assassin trained by even deadlier nuns in service to Saint Mortain. There are some paranormal components of the novel, but the majority of the story surrounds the high court of Brittany and, more importantly, Ismae’s relationship with the troubled but kind Gavriel Duval. The book is quite lengthy at almost 550 pages, but this gives the author plenty of time to develop the characters and story, making it likely that readers will want to pick up the sequel, Dark Triumph, which is set to be released April 2, 2013.

Genre:  Historical-Fiction

Reading level: Grade 8+

Similar titles: The Circle Cast: The Lost Years of Morgan le Fay by Alex Epstein, The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal, Gilt by Katherine Longshore, Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren.
Themes:  Assassins, death, convents, royalty, medieval times, treason, conspiracy, Brittany, love, duty, loyalty.

Awards/Reviews:  Starred review from Booklist, positive reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal.     

Series Information: First book in His Fair Assassin series.  

Discussion questions:

-       Why do you think her scar caused the village to shun Ismae? Do you think people still shun those who have physical deformities or handicaps? Why or why not?

If you were given the opportunity, would you want to train with the nuns of the Convent of Saint Mortain?

How would you describe the marque of Mortain? What do you think it is? What does it mean?

Why do you think Ismae has such a hard time trusting Gavriel at first? What do you think changes her mind?

Were you surprised to learn the identity of the traitor at court? Why or why not?

The sequel to this novel, Dark Triumph, is about Sybella and her story. What would you like to see happen in this book?

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