The book my book group read last month was Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers. I finished up the sequel Dark Triumph today and am now impatiently waiting for the third book to be published in the spring. This is very enjoyable young adult series, partially because it has a very entertaining central concept, well executed, and the author avoids some of the cliches and narrative traps that plague less entertaining novels. Really any review of these books is unnecessary simply because telling you that the books revolve around TEENAGE ASSASSIN NUNS IN BRITTANY DURING THE MIDDLE AGES is likely to either draw you in or leave you repulsed (if you are a boring person who doesn’t enjoy assassin nuns).
The first book centers on Ismae, who is a peasant girl with a brutal life who escapes to the convent of Saint Mortain, the God of Death. Trained to be a top notch assassin, Ismae is assigned to go to the court of the Duchess Anne, accompanying the handsome yet extremely suspicious Duval. Ismae uses her assassin’s gifts to begin unraveling the plots that surround the Duchess, but she is distracted by her growing attraction to the man she’s assigned to spy upon. One of the things that I enjoyed very much about this book was the combination of historical research and a unique narrative voice. The convent of Saint Mortain is clearly a cover for worship of a much older, more pagan god, given a vaguely Christian appearance in order to survive the religious pressures of the day. Ismae as a peasant who is transformed by her convent training has the zeal of a fervent believer, but even she notices that sometimes her orders to kill that come from the convent might be more politically expedient than they are the will of her god. The fantasy elements are blended in well with Ismae’s assassin training. She can see dark smudges when someone is marked for death, and only then will she act as an assassin. I have a bit of YA Love Triangle fatigue at this point, so I was very happy when the book just concentrated on the growing relationship between Ismae and Duval without the distraction of a third party. It seems like more often in YA these days a love triangle is a required element, so the lack of one felt very refreshing. Ismae has close friends at the convent who were trained at around the same time as her, and this plays in nicely to the sequel books.
In addition to Love Triangle Fatigue, I also have a bit of Trilogy Fatigue, as there are plenty of series that have 2 books of content that are stretched into three, or 4 books of content turned into an unsatisfying trilogy. I also get a bit weary of trilogies that are basically one long book with two horrible cliffhangers spaced out into three volumes. The His Fair Assassin Series is one of my favorite types of trilogies because instead of following the same character and story throughout, the protagonist changes with each book. The timelines cover some of the same periods, but the shift in character perspective makes the series very interesting.
Dark Triumph has Sybella as a protagonist. A girl of noble birth who arrives at the convent acting utterly wild and not particularly thrilled to be there, Ismae regarded Sybella with affection but not a lot of true understanding, as their backgrounds and life experiences are totally different. Sybella is the daughter of the evil (EXTRA EVIL) nobleman D’Albret, who is determined to gain control of Brittany by forcibly marrying the young Duchess Anne. While Ismae may have foiled some of his plots in the first book, he is still around (STILL EVIL!) and Sybella must work to carry out the will of Mortain while dodging her own relatives. Sybella’s main activity is rescuing The Beast, one of Duvall’s close friends whose martial powers when he’s enraged by battle lust are unmatched. As they journey together, more and more of Sybella’s troubled background is revealed, but even she is able to transform and grow into a whole person. The contrast in personalities between the two heroines was enjoyable. Ismae is a true believer, but Sybella is cynical and pragmatic. She enjoys killing people for her own reasons, and in a way she’s almost perfectly matched with The Beast, who leaves trails of corpses in his wake.
The conflict between the political maneuverings of the nuns in charge of the convent and the will of the god Mortain itself are alluded to in the first book and developed even more in the second. I’m wondering if there will be some larger upheaval in the convent for book three. Sometimes there are authors who might seize upon an interesting idea, but the execution and back story isn’t very well filled out, so the reader has to do a lot of suspension of disbelief and mental gymnastics in order to get through the book. I’m thinking particularly of Divergent, which was fun but there were so many loopholes in the events and future history portrayed in the books that it didn’t seem like there was much initial world building taking place before the book was written. This is absolutely not the case with the His Fair Assassin series, where it is very clear that LaFevers has done extensive research into the time period. The reader can just sit back and be transported into another world and enjoy the unique setting and fantasy elements. I highly recommend this series if you enjoy historical fantasy.