GRAVE MERCY – His Fair Assassin – Book 1 by Robin LaFevers, HMH Books for Young Readers, March 2013 – 5 Stars by Shannon Kennedy
Finding new authors – well, new to me, that is ~ was one of the benefits of hitting the 2016 conference circuit last year as a writer, editor and reader. One of my most amazing discoveries was Robin LaFevers and her fabulous trilogy about teen assassins in the Middle Ages who are determined to put a young girl on the throne of Brittany.
Described as historical fantasy, this series is grounded in a little known era when twelve-year-old Anne of Brittany inherited her father’s throne and held it despite constant upheaval and betrayal from her so-called supporters, as well as dealing with the French regent’s, another woman’s attacks. Somehow, Anne managed to win despite the fact she was in charge of an unstable kingdom, had an empty treasury, and several wanta-be husbands who only wooed her for the country she ruled.
Fantasy elements include the worship of the “9 Saints” ~ former gods now being incorporated into the organized religion, something that historical authorities claim the Catholic church did when it absorbed pagan religions in unconquered nations. In the Brittany of this series, the saints are still worshiped as Gods, especially St. Mortain whose acolytes are raised and trained as warriors from the time they arrive at the convent.
Most of these girls have survived traumatic births ~ where their mothers die ~ and the result is frequently some sort of immunity, such as the first heroine, Ismae’s ability to withstand poison, or the second, Sybella’s sensing heartbeats/life-forces of anyone around her, or Annith’s ability to talk to the ‘dead’. In addition, these young, teen assassins see a ‘marque’ or stain on the faces of those doomed to die and that ‘marque’ gives them permission to kill the evildoer.
LaFevers effectively incorporates other fantasy elements into this trilogy, moving each story forward. Nothing is extraneous and the world-building is often reminiscent of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series. Everything seems so believable, even when Annith rides with a troop of dead soldiers led by a man who isn’t what he seems.
Seventeen-year-old Ismae Reinnes faces an unusual destiny when she flees a forced marriage and runs to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of death, now considered one of the ‘nine saints’ of the church, but she knows better. During her stay, she trains to become an assassin with unusual skill in poisons – her gift since she is apparently immune to them – and is told that the saint actually ‘sired’ her so she is considered not only his handmaiden, but also his daughter. Set in 15th century Brittany, this story incorporates the historical background of the Middle Ages when truth seems stranger than fiction.
Twelve-year-old Anne inherits the throne of the duchy and depends not only on her illegitimate siblings to protect her realm, but also finds herself relying on the handmaidens of Death including Ismae and her close friends, Sybella and Annith. Ismae’s first assignment to kill a traitor goes well and she triumphantly returns to the convent where she continues her training until she leaves for the next deadly conquest. However, things don’t turn out as she expects. A counselor to the young duchess arrives needing a skilled, lethal ally.
Chancellor Crunard tells the Abbess and Ismae that the French, a long-time threat to Brittany, are sending a spy in an attempt to purchase Baron Lombart’s loyalty so he will betray their kingdom by turning a key seaport over to the enemy. Ismae must eliminate the spy before he actually engages the nobleman in treason. Of course, complications arise when she barely completes her grisly task, i.e. killing the spy and disposing of his body before a stranger erupts into the room. When she manages to ‘con’ the new arrival, she also contrives to learn his name, Gavriel Duval prior to fleeing.
Upon her return to the convent, Ismae shares what she knows with the Abbess and Crunard. They tell her that Duval is an advisor to the duchess, but nobody seems to know how loyal he is to their country’s prospective ruler. Once he arrives, he claims his loyalty isn’t in question, but there are many advisors who can’t swear the same fealty and who seem to believe that he would be a suitable candidate to rule Brittany although he’d rather serve the legal ruler than usurp her crown.
Duval wants to interrogate suspected traitors and he’d appreciate it if the assassins at the convent would stop killing them before he can capture them. This particular episode has a certain amount of ‘gallows humor’ and readers may find themselves liking the long delayed introduction of our hero despite his complaints. To her dismay, Ismae discovers that her next assignment will be one where she accompanies Duval to court and helps him determine the different allies who will aid him in the quest to crown the duchess as the ruler of Brittany and find her the perfect husband and the adversaries who will try to prevent this outcome.
The intricate plot with its constant upheaval and wonderful pacing reminds one of a roller-coaster ride. Something constantly happens throughout the 550 pages, yet these events never feel contrived or artificial. A trustworthy narrator, Ismae consistently shares not only her adventures, but also her discoveries at court. For example, the reason why people think Duval or his brother might be better rulers is because they are the duchess’ illegitimate older half-brothers and have a possible claim to the throne. Like Duval, Ismae comes to truly love the young legal heir to the crown.
Young Anne isn’t the only one that Ismae admires. She finds herself more enthralled by Duval. He proves himself strong, brave and incredibly loyal to family, friends and their country. He is equally fascinated by Ismae’s abilities long before she realizes it, not just her lethal ones and this makes him more lovable with each page. The well-drawn, authentic setting with its elaborate descriptions and historical details doesn’t slow the pacing – a sign of Robin LaFever’s skilled writing.
In addition, each character has their own arc, no place-holders here, not even the secondary ones who are simply at court to secure their own interests, especially the evil Count D’Albret who plots to marry Anne and steal her throne after the deaths of numerous, previous wives. To Ismae’s bewilderment it isn’t only these ‘noble’ strangers who pursue their desires and she finds herself wondering about the convent and its leadership.
Does questioning the orders she receives mean she also questions the ‘God’ she worships and serves. Does following Death mean she must give up life and love? Will she and Duval succeed or fail in their endeavors? What does her ‘God’ want from her? Who will live or die and does Ismae have the power to ensure nobody decent succumbs?
These incredibly difficult questions torment her. The ongoing political struggles don’t help especially when she has ever-increasing problems to solve. Although this book could be considered a ‘stand alone’ novel, it really isn’t. Ms. LaFever leaves readers wanting to know what will happen to Ismae’s friends and if they will be able to meet the demands of their destinies. Will twelve-year-old Anne become the duchess of Brittany or lose her country to the hateful French? In discovering a new author, one can only be grateful it is now when she has finished the entire trilogy so these and other questions are answered immediately instead of having to wait for the next installment.