Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Face Value: Though this book has some signifiers that I usually don’t like, with a girl in a fancy dress looking off into the distance, I’ll give the book some serious credit for the fact that this fancy dress is actually a fancy dress that said girl wears during the book. And some more credit for the crossbow. And some more credit for the awesome tagline: “Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?” Basically you know this book is going to be Slatebreaking as soon as you look at it, and who can really complain about that?
Does it Break the Slate? It’s about a 15th century convent that secretly trains assassins. So, yes, obviously. But also, even within the fantasy context, Grave Mercy is a complicated look at what life and options were like for a woman in the 1400s, and the characters in it go on their own, fascinating emotional journeys.
Who would we give it to? This would be a natural recommendation for readers who loved Graceling or die hard Buffy fans. It’s long, and has a lot of historical detail alongside the main plot, but will definitely appeal to a certain type of fantasy reader.
Review: I love a good feminist action hero. Some of the best kinds of heroes (Buffy being the first that comes to mind) are great not only because of the way the heroine kicks butt and conquers evil, etc. etc. but because of the ways in which they subvert expectations. Joss Whedon talked a lot about his initial idea for Buffy coming from the idea of the stereotypical victim, a young girl, actually being the predator, the one the bad guys are afraid of. Throughout the series she is constantly using people’s stereotyped expectations of her to her own advantage, giving her an edge
And essentially, here we have the crux of Grave Mercy. It takes place in the 15th century, at a time in history when women were not granted many rights and had few options or resources. So to envision an alternate world, in which young women are incredibly powerful, and have this venue for it, that doesn’t totally go against the reality of the time period – that’s very exciting to read about. It’s the recognition of historical limitations and creating a space through which those limitations can be defied that really makes the feminism in this book work.
Grave Mercy begins in 1485, when Ismae Rienne escapes from her violent, loveless father’s house to a violent, loveless arranged marriage. But with the scars down her back and the belief that she was “sired by the god of death himself,” not to mention her status as a young woman, Ismae has few options. But soon, Ismae escapes her marriage and is brought to the convent of St. Mortain. Here, young women in similar situations are trained to be assassins and handmaidens to Death. As a final test from the convent, she is sent on an assignment to pose as the mistress of enigmatic Gavriel Duval and root out the truth about plots against the Duchess. A mix of political intrigue, action, history and romance, there’s a lot going on in this book, and despite its length, it moves fast.
Robin LaFevers does a great job of embedding this alternate reality in historical detail, and the effect is an all encompassing world that is incredibly compelling. This is almost entirely a great thing, as I felt completely immersed in this reality while I was reading, though there were moments where I lost track of Ismae’s perspective in all that was going on.
Though Ismae largely rejects traditionally feminine roles, and is far more interested in poison and weapons, she often finds herself using traditional expectations of women to her advantage. Playing on the assumptions people make about women as powerless, she gains access to essential information and is given an outlet for her attacks. She is not a powerful force despite being a woman – it actually strengthens her abilities.
It’s not only the assassins of the convent who are interesting women though, and that’s what’s really exciting. St. Mortain’s disciples have simply been given other options, and we see what life is like for dynamic women without those resources. An incredibly powerful moment happens near the end of the book when Ismae confronts Gavriel’s mother, a manipulative woman, portrayed largely as a villain and realizes:
“We are alike, Hivern and I. Both women, both powerless over our own fates. Who is to say I would not have done exactly as she if I had been born into her circumstances? The life I would have led with Guillo spreads out before me, his offspring hanging from my skirts. Would I have grown to love them? Protect them? Could I have done any differently than Hivern had?”
This is a more powerful Slatebreaking realization, even than Ismae’s realization of her own strength. Her recognition that the system has devalued all women, and that there is a bigger force of oppression out there is incredibly dynamic. And there are other stories out there. Sybella and Annith, other young members of the convent have their own adventures hinted at, and the “coming soon” pages at the end of this book confirm it – there are more stories to be told in this world. And I can’t wait to read them.
Reviewed from Library copy.