Books: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

First in a series known as "His Fair Assassin," Grave Mercy follows Ismae, Daughter of Mortain (that is, Death) as she works to protect her homeland of Brittany from being taken over by the French.

Ismae is raised as the much-abused daughter of a turnip farmer, though it seems widely known that her scars mark her as a Daughter of Death. With the help of some sympathetic herbwitches, Ismae is taken to a convent dedicated to Mortain and taught the skills to become one of His handmaidens, namely an assassin. Once satisfactorily trained, she begins to be sent out on assignments.

Think of it as 15th-century Buffy. Except there are more than one of them. And they aren't fighting vampires, just really bad people.

The Convent of Mortain has vested interest in keeping Brittany sovereign and separate from France and other kingdoms because, if absorbed, the old saints and gods will fall to the Holy Roman ones. And so Ismae finds herself assigned to attend Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and to protect her and the country from treason. Courtly romance ensues.

Now if you know anything about historical Brittany (and I do because my family actually hails from there), you know Anne did eventually get married off first to one French king and then, when he died, his brother. But the bulk of this story takes place prior to all that, in advance of any of Anne's marriages (her first having been to the Holy Roman Emperor himself, but only by proxy). In the meantime, Grave Mercy does a nice job of building up the political tensions without bogging the story down too much. One really does feel sorry for young Anne, whose options were limited to begin with and got narrower with each passing day.

Ismae is a nice main character, too. Strong but not obnoxious, which can often be the case with these types of books. And the love interest was equally well managed: smart, strong-minded, but again not irritating. I was a tad put off by the first person present tense, but I got used to it. And the ending was satisfying without being too pat.

The next book in the series supposedly focuses on another of Mortain's handmaidens, one encountered briefly in this one, with just enough seeds of intrigue planted that, yes, I do want to know what's going on with her. So I'll probably pick that one up at some point, though I don't think I could read these back-to-back; at about 550 pages, one is enough to tide me over for a while. Still, it's nice to find another book series to add to my list, and to have books to look forward to.

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