[Editor’s Note: Since Grave Mercy has benefited from a colossal publicity push, we thought it would be worth having a second opinion on this book. Interestingly, Sandra’s take is quite similar to Laura’s. Warning: Some may read this review as slightly spoilerish.]
Set in medieval Brittany, Grave Mercy’s timeless theme of abuse and escape gives the story of Ismae, Death’s Daughter, a contemporary storyline that unfortunately does not work, even when I did my best to employ the concept of Suspension of Disbelief.
Mortain, the God of Death, feeds off belief in and worship of him much as humans nourish themselves with bread and meat. Without belief and worship, Mortain would starve for lack of sustenance. Ismae Rienne, who Robin LaFevers created in Grave Mercy, bears a deep, red stain from her left shoulder to her right hip,
…a trail left by herbwitche’s poison that [her] mother used to expel [her] from her womb.
The expulsion failed.
Life for Ismae’s mother was too ugly, dangerous and harsh to bring a child into. Yet, Ismae survived with a mark upon her signifying her role as the daughter of death, Mortain’s progeny. Her earthly father did not perceive the mark of the God Mortain upon her as significant, rather he viewed her as his personal whipping post, something he could pummel his fists upon thus feeding his cruel streak.
I felt absolute horror for Ismae.
She finds herself trapped into a brutal, arranged marriage to Guillo, a man with “…big, wide hands…dirt caked under his fingernails and stains in the creases of his skin.” Ismae’s experience with her husband’s animalistic attempt at consummation of the marriage would make even the hardest of hearts weep. On their wedding night he forces her into his bedroom, making her remove her clothing and stand before him,
…piggish eyes gorge themselves on my body, going from the top of my head down to my ankles, then back up to my breasts.
When he sees the scar upon her, he hits her rather than forcing himself upon her. Locking her in a small root cellar, Guillo goes in search of a priest who will either burn or drown her.
The atmosphere created amidst darkness and fear leads her from the cellar to a priest who frees her and with the assistance of the local herbwitch helps her to find refuge in the Abbey of St. Mortain where the nuns of death spin their deadly vows. Here the Abbess briefs Ismae as to her life in the convent.
You are well equipped for our service… we kill people.
Skip forward, past assassin training to Ismae’s first assignment: Assassination.
At this point, a ninja-like narrative of the assassin nuns sinks into a murky tale of love with a tincture of inspired thought. Sealing vows of love with a kiss, trembling limbs and darkness gives way to redemption that jumbles into a spidery web of confusion.
No pun intended, but the assassin nun finds redemption. Interesting. Thoughtful. Implausible.
For while I am Death’s daughter and walk in His dark shadow, surely the darkness can give way to light sometimes.
Ismae feels she can no longer trust the integrity of the convent’s orders. She finds through the grace of love, “a warm and flowing” river pouring over her that she can become “An instrument of mercy, not vengeance.”
Disbelief in the gods, the nuns, the lovers and the society reined in any inclination I nurtured to believe in Ismae’s story, or feel inspired with or entertained by the other characters.
The theme of darkness enlightened with love and light forges an inspirational end, yet it fails to ring true leaving tangled bits of ninja-nuns in its wake.
Publication Date: April 3, 2012 (Though it is on many shelves now.)
CEFS received a review copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley. No compensation or other “goodies” were received in exchange for this honest review.