Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
Sub-genre: Swords and sorcery
Rating: 4 1/2 pint of blood
If I'd seen this cover a year ago, I would have loved it. I'm a little overrun by all the many many fancy dresses in cover art, so this doesn't stand out to me as much as it would have before that trend exploded. However, I do really love the colours, and that crossbow adds an extra touch of awesome. It's not quite an action shot, but she looks strong and ready to start some action, and that does make her stand out.
So basically I heard "lady assassin" and that was the end of it. I loves me some stories about lady assassins. Assassins in general are pretty cool, but I'm especially fond of them in lady form, since a) they don't show up as often and b) I happen to be a lady.
Marked as the daughter of the god of death, Ismae is feared and hated by the people around her, especially her harsh father. When he sells her in marriage to a man just as harsh, she's afraid her unhappy fate has been sealed until an unlikely rescue comes for her and sends her to the convent of St Mortain. There the sisters honour the god of Death and teach the girls to be handmaidens to Death, using the skills he's given them to carry out his will.
An unexpected assignment in the court of Brittany takes Ismae into a dangerous world she wasn't prepared for. Intrigue, politics, murder... and most unsettling of all, kindness.
I really, thoroughly enjoyed this book. This was a "it's two hours past my bedtime but just have to get through one more chapter" kind of book. Ismae is a great character, smart and capable, damaged but strong in spite of (or because of) that. Once she gets to the high court she's on her own for the first time in her life, and watching her struggle to realize the leaders she's respected and the lessons she's been given aren't infallible is fascinating. She does switch rather quickly from "men are horrible people," a lesson learned primarily from her father and the man she was given to, to not only finding herself fond of but deeply trusting several of them. Too quickly? Probably, but it does make for a good character arc and helps underline for the reader how much she's willing to grow and change.
She's surrounded by an interesting cast of characters, some of them quite complex, and the world is a semi-historic one. Fevers uses a very light touch with the magic, and I liked that the protagonist didn't know much more about her gifts than the reader did, giving her the chance to explore as the story went on.
The book is being marketed as YA, although there really isn't anything YA about it. Ismae is young, but considered a full adult by the culture and time period she lives in, and nothing about the tone would indicate it's primarily aimed at younger readers. Older teens may enjoy it, but I think some of the subtleties would be lost on younger teens. These subtleties are a big part of what made the book appeal to me so much, so it's not a criticism by any means. A few years ago this would have been sent straight into the fantasy section without a second thought, but with the current popularity of YA, well, it's not hard to see why they'd choose to market it that way. I wouldn't consider it a YA novel myself, at least not primarily, although there's no reason teens couldn't read and enjoy it.
So who is the ideal reader for Grave Mercy, if not the teen demographic? If you like strong romantic themes in your fantasy novels, if you like characters prone to thinking before they act, if you like political intrigue and assassins, this is a book you'll want to pick up. It is, of course, a no-brainer as to whether or not I'll be picking up the second in the series. There are more lady assassins to be had! I am so in!
Grave Mercy will be available tomorrow in hardcover or as an e-book. My copy was generously provided by the publisher.