"Who are you to say what the god of death needs or doesn’t need? Mortain is an old god and has no desire to be forgotten and fade from this world, which is why he chooses to bestir Himself in the affairs of man. [...] He will ask for sacrifices, but it is not your role to question. Only to serve with love and obedience."
Before starting this review in earnest I believe I have to come clean concerning three facts:
1. Although I have consumed some very fine specimens historical fiction is usually not my kind of playground. At the time when everybody else was adding [b:Grave Mercy to their wishlists, it even failed to kindle my interest in reading the description. I came to read the electronic ARC because of the publisher’s awsome decision to make it available to every Netgalley member for a slim slot of time. The chance had simply been too good to pass.
2. I am part of that very tiny group of young adult fiction readers who regarded the label "assassin nuns" with weary apprehension instead of the urge to squeal and fantasize. The way I think categorizes people who are both faith-driven and bent on ending human lives on a regular basis as religious fanatics. I am not so fond of religious fanatics – no matter which god or idea they worship.
3. I stopped reading approximately around the 55% mark. That means, everything I am going to say about the story, the characters and the setting does not take into account the possibility of character development or tremendously unexpected twists of the plot.
15th century Britanny: Ismae has been raised as the younger daughter of a brutal turnip farmer, although she is the result of her late mother’s infidelity. Her being still among the living and defiantly bearing the sign of being a survivor as a huge read welt along her torso although her mother tried to abort her with poisonous herbs is due to the common believe that foeti who refuse to succumb to their mothers’ efforts to get rid of them have been fathered by Mortain, the breton god of death, himself and are indistructible and dangerous.
When Ismae is fourteen and has just been married to a younger and even crueller version of her father she gets abducted and thus saved by worshippers of the old gods/saints (In Britanny the seven leaders of the Keltic immigrants, who came from Britain in the 5th century, have been worshipped as founding saints, but Grave Mercy makes them 12 in number and older than Christianity). Having only met brutes like her father and her almost-husband Ismae unwaveringly chooses to become an obedient assassin in Mortain’s service instead of picking the alternative, which is leaving the convent as the wife of the good and gentle man the convent's abbess would set aside for her. Her schooling takes about three years during which Ismae spends much of the time she should attend fight, etiquette or history classes in the poison maker’s workshop because of her unique gift, which makes her immune against each and every poison. Yet, in spite of her comprehension of her country's political situation having holes as big as Normandy, in spite of her childish impatience, her lack of refinement and her inability to take care of the simple spy work that should precede a kill, the convent's fishy abbess singles Ismae out to accompany the blue-blooded Gavriel Duval as his mistress to court, where she is to find out if he is loyal to his country and to kill whoever is marked by Mortain. Level-headed Gavriel is not overly excited to have a coarse Handmaiden of Death among his travelling baggage and is pretty honest about his doubts concerning her being up to the job.
This would have been the moment I would have liked the story to take off. I would have extremely enjoyed a kick-ass heroine who shows the haughty nobleman what a little training and some awesome genes can do to a farmer girl. A dropped jaw and some groveling on his part for seriously underestimating her would have been a bonus. But no! Hot and haughty was perfectly right: His friends at the first inn on the road immediately uncover richly-clad Ismae as what she is: A barely educated, pouting brat from the country. They do not describe how they knew, but I guess it had been her gawking, her her accent, her lack of vocabulary, her rustic table manners or a combination of all four. Scenes like that make me squirm and wince. Assassins should – like thieves and spies and agents – be able to play any role, to blend in and be invisible or - if required - to shine and dazzle. They should be able to think, to understand subtle changes in a situation, to lay low for some time or to strike in the spur of the moment. Our star of the story, narrow-minded Ismae, gets quickly antsy and irrational, because apart from sticking a knife or some poisonous things into brightly-marked people there is nothing she is really fit to do. She makes some half-hearted attempts to find out things to write home about and to act inconspicious, but her clumsiness is painful to watch.
Some reviewers think that the overweight of political schemes may intellectually overwelm the action-loving reader. I was occasionally bored out of my socks, but I do not believe that happened because I am an action-junkie. I have read and enjoyed my fair share of character-, description- or problem-driven books. I think, for me it is like my friend Teccc expressed it so well: I felt severely cheated. There is a magically gifted heroine who went through some elaborate, specialized training. She even owns a wooden chest full of wonderful killing goodies. But when push comes to shove all that training and all the giftedness is practically useless. The heroine is given a magical knife that belonged to Mortain Himself, which effortlessly kills a person as soon as the skin is grazed. Every low-class killer could do her job. My guess is, the author had too much fun planning her medieval, magical boarding-school – pardon me: convent – as a foundation for her debut novel. At the same time she already had the romantic and political outcome of the story fixed. Intertwining the novelty school idea with the spy plot proved to be a lot more difficult than expected, but it was too late to let go of either of her babies.
What irked me apart from the heroine’s lack of skills and brains was her chaste prudishness and her being so affronted by having to act as a mistress: "Mistress. The word whispers through me, taunting, beckoning, laughing. That I will have to pose as such is almost more that I can bear."
What is so despisable and complicated about pretending to be a mistress, when it is part of your job description? Or, what is so bad about being a mistress at all? By the time Ismae leaves the convent she is 17. She claims to have intimate knowledge about sex from living in close quarters with her turnip farmer dad. Yet she almost blows her own cover by being reluctant to do something harmless like snuggling up to her supposed lover at a picnic or having him stay in her rooms overnight. I did not think Ismae’s behaviour was cute. Only exceptionally annoying and lacking the much-needed farsightedness of someone of her profession. For me her different character traits do not make sense or add up.
The under fact 2 listed religious-fanatic-dilemma got a bit diffused by love interest Gavriel’s own critical stance about it. He repeatedly questions Ismae’s blind devotion to both her saint and her abbess and addresses the question if serving the country means automatically serving the country’s favored deity. Apropos Gavriel. Ismae uses a lot of her inner monologue to ponder about his loyalty – which the convent’s abbess thinks to be not real - and his motivation. But there is no way that he is not part of the good guys. Therefore the heroine’s fretting in that department gets boring quickly, too.
Is this the third time I used the word bored or boring? It doesn’t really matter. I did not feel well entertained and my brain did not feel busy. Even trudging through the remaining 45 percent felt like too much effort. Maybe the second volume, which concentrates on another young assassin, will be better. But I am not interested to make up my own opinion about that. I’ll just wipe the last trace of the first installment off my Kindle.
Kill, clean and out.