Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

If the main character of Grave Mercy, Ismae, were only a few years older, this book could have been marketed as adult historical fantasy. As it is, Ismae is a teenager in 15th century Brittany, but in her time, as France threatens to overtake Brittany, Ismae and the young duchess (who is only twelve years old) are already considered adults. Ismae’s mother tried to abort her, so Ismae bears the mark of Mortain, one of Brittany’s old gods, the god of death. A convent devoted to Mortain takes Ismae in and trains her in their complicated sect. Part spy, part assassin, part nun, Ismae emerges from the convent on a mission requiring her to pose as Gavriel Duval’s mistress. The web of treachery, betrayal, and lies covers all the characters and Ismae eventually sorts the threads out and discovers how to follow her god-given instincts, all the while helping to save her kingdom from behind the scenes. The novel is excellently written, never bogged down in the complex history it reinvents. The plot is adventure, romance, and life story all in one—in short, a tale well told. So often young adult books purport to show young women how to be self-reliant by giving them stories about violence or meekness while ignoring the subtleties of mercy and strength of character. Not so here. With Grave Mercy, LaFevers has written a protagonist who is courageous and smart, passionate but careful. LaFevers boils down a sophisticated historical and political time, adds a dash of fantasy, and concocts a delicious and heady brew of superb storytelling and captivating characters.

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