Biggest Book Disappointment of the Year: A Review of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Details and Synopsis
My Rating: 3/5 stars
US Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
17 year-old Ismae is marked by St. Martain, the saint-god of death, because she survived her mother’s attempted abortion. She bears this mark physically in a gruesome scar, and in the otherworldly abilities she has yet to acknowledge. A medieval woman living in Brittany, she’s married off in an agreement between her abusive father and an equally horrible man who shows Ismae on their wedding night that he will not only continue her father’s brutal treatment, he’s going to add to it. Thankfully, she’s smuggled away by adherents of St. Martain, and taken to His convent of assassin nuns. There she’s trained to do her part to keep Brittany’s sovereignty from the kingdom of France, but the path she walks is full of treachery, politics, love, and other dangerous things.

*Spoilers Below**
My Thoughts
I really wanted to like Grave Mercy, and I came close. There are a lot of positives here; the writing, for one, is gorgeous. The setting is vivid and satisfying; LaFevers has comfortably given us a fantasy world with living gods firmly rooted in our own past. There are a lot of feminist undercurrents here, questions about women and their relationships to men and each other. St. Martain’s nunnery of assassins is an oasis where women chosen by the god/saint of death can escape their brutal, restricted medieval lives and find occupation, solidarity, purpose, and vengeance. I loved the first half of this book; I loved following Ismae to St. Martain, and I was so excited for the things she learned at the convent and reading about her sisters there.
But then, she meets Duval and Duval becomes a central character and Ismae falls head over heels and I just…stopped caring. Not because of the romance itself! If you read any of my other reviews, you’ll see I’m a sucker for this set-up. I love anything that challenges a woman in a story, and love is very often the catalyst for change in stories about women. I like to see women challenged to reconcile the lives they want for themselves, their freedom, their passions, their other relationships, with that love. I very often wish women got more varied narratives, but when it’s done well (and sometimes even when it’s not) I’m all for it, despite myself. In this case, though, Duval is just boring. I found him a terrible character despite the pains the author took to make him seem real and debonair, despite his love for his sister and the sacrifices he makes. I ended up thinking, “THIS, Ismae? You go through all that, you learn so many mysteries and experience so much freedom and this is all it takes to make you want to go back to live at the mercy of men?”
Now, if Ismae had fallen for the ugly and heroic Beast, I think it would’ve made for a more interesting story. Or if she’d not been so…naive and ready to lay it all on the line for Duval, I would’nt have minded so much. I truly wish she hadn’t fallen in love at all, and that she’d found out the problems with the convent and her role there through some different means of self-discovery or adventure. I just feel let down by the whole set up, especially after reading the hidden gem Eolyn, about a woman who finds her passion and her vocation and follows it, despite the challenges.
The ending to Grave Mercy seemed abrupt to me, too, but that could have been because I had to really concentrate and make myself finish it. I didn’t really have any drive to see what happened to Duval, or the duchess, or even Ismae. I found myself wondering about Annith and Sybella. And for Sybella I’m going to read the next book in the series. I really think that the writing and mythology are excellent, so I want to give the series another shot. It could be that LaFevers is just being true to Ismae, and I simply don’t relate to that type of character. Maybe Sybella will be more my taste.
3/5 stars, not for any technical reasons; writing, pacing, and setting are great. I’m choosing 3 stars instead of 4 because I really think the plot just unwound itself about 3/4 of the way through, and there wasn’t a payoff. I felt, by the end, I’d gotten invested in this for nothing and was truly disappointed.

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