Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.
Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
The book is set in the late 1400s and at the ending of the Middle Ages. Ismae is fourteen when the book begins--a fact not communicated until the end of this period--and is sold from a cruel father to a cruel man. When her new husband sees her ugly scars as she's undressed before him, he locks her in a cellar. Ismae received these scars when her mother and 'father' attempted to purge her from the womb. Since she is the sire of Saint Mortain, this does not kill her.
From the cellar, she is rescued. She's shipped across Brittany in boats and wagons until she arrives at St. Mortain's convent. Here, she is given the skills needed to seduce and kill a man. Since she is immune to poisons, she specializes in them for the three years she is at the convent.
Then, she is given her assignments. She is told who to kill and how by the Saint of Death himself. It turns out, killing the men she does doesn't help the duchess of Brittany. Gavriel Duval let's the abbess of the convent know this, and Ismae is assigned to pretend like Duval's mistress so that she can get close to the court and kill the traitors lurking there.
This book is beautifully written. There aren't a lot of metaphors and it is less than aesthetically pleasing, but it is what I imagine to be accurate. The wording of Ismae's thoughts and observations are very similar to how they talked in that time period. (Again, I assume. I was not around.)
Ismae is an admirable and strong young woman. She's been through many horrible things and yet she pushes through it all. I have a soft spot for strong female leads, and Ismae fits right into place.
Since I've chosen to keep this review spoiler-free, I'm just going to skip right to my rating explanation.
This book gets an automatic four stars because of its thick and twisting plot. This book is full of suspension and surprise. I'm amazed at how often I was blindsided by the characters. Speaking of characters, they are wonderful. There is a diverseness among their personalities and each has motivations separate from the main character. That is surprisingly rare among YA fiction.
In the end, the reason I gave Grave Mercy five stars is because of how much it appealed to me. The idea of a seventeen year old assassin among royalty is intriguing and the amount of detail and thought given to that aspect of the book is just astonishing.
I'd recommend this book to any fan of YA fiction who wants to be shocked by the wide range of that genre. Also, any kind of historical fiction fan may want to check this book out. Even romance fans will be interested, I think. It's a slow burn kind of romance, but it is totally worth it in the end!
Now, this is the first book in a series. I'm not referencing the other books because they are told from different POVs than Ismae. They're different characters and in truth, I have no desire to read them. I believe I will soon, but they aren't my first priority.
Thanks for reading,