Grave Mercy was unexpectedly perfect for me!
Book: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
Read before: The first 100 pages
Ownership: Paperback purchased by me from Mostly Books, but I also had a NetGalley e-ARC. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Attempted sexual assault, death.
I had so much fun with this book! I’d previously started it and then gotten distracted by something else about 100 pages in, but I can’t remember why I put it down. Coming back to it was a fantastic decision, because this just hit all my buttons for a fantasy – court politics, beautiful gowns on deadly women, assassins and poisoners, a strong romance. It’s upper YA (not quite NA, I don’t think, but pretty violent and open about sex) and skips a lot of the YA fantasy tropes that I’m very fed up with. If anything, it reminds me of a less weighty Kushiel’s Dart, which is one of my favourite fantasies – if you strip out the sex scenes and the more brutal murder, and lighten up the politics a lot, you’d get Grave Mercy. Perfect for when you want some of the romantic murdery fun without things getting too intense.
Ismae is a great main character, strong and smart in some ways, but woefully naive in others. I loved seeing her come into her own – from a farmer’s daughter sold in marriage to a brute, she develops into a skilled assassin at the convent of St Mortain, and then develops even further to truly become her own woman. It’s a really believable journey, and it’s very fulfilling to watch! I thought going into this that there would be more of a focus on her training at the convent, but this is actually over very quickly – I think perhaps I’d assumed that since this was a series, things would move more slowly, but actually each book focuses on a different main character, so Ismae’s journey is much more self-contained, meaning she gets out into the world more quickly and you get a satisfying conclusion.
I adored the romance in this book – I’m a huge fan of fantasy romance as a genre, where there’s as much effort put into the emotional depth of a character’s relationships as there is into the rest of the plot (rather than romance being sidelined as a tick-box exercise because it ‘needs’ to have one). Ismae’s love interest, Duval, reminded me hugely of Cullen from Dragon Age: Inquisition, whose romance arc is one of my favourites of any game – both are stoic warriors with hearts of gold, who offer an incredibly safe space to a heroine facing the trials of being a main character with a dangerous life. There’s one scene where Duval’s kindness peeps out from behind his business-like exterior, when he shows acceptance of something that Ismae hates about herself, that really cemented this for me as a great romance.
I’ve not had a great run of reads, recently, and having put this down before, I went in expecting that again I’d be disappointed, but Grave Mercy blew me away. It’s so compelling, and it has so many things I love. It’s going straight on my mental list of ‘great court fantasies’, and I can’t wait to see if the other books in the series live up to it. Five out of five cats!