Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy Book Cover Grave Mercy
Robin LaFevers

Escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, seventeen-year-old Ismae finds sanctuary at 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 be willing to take the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany, where she must pose as mistress to the darkly mysterious Gavriel Duval, who has fallen under a cloud of suspicion. Once there, she finds herself woefully underprepared – not only for the deadly games of love and intrigue, 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?


I started off feeling quite enthusiastic about Grave Mercy. The beginning of the book reminded me a lot of Poison Study, and also a bit of Crown Duel, as it features a strong, capable heroine struggling to keep up with the intrigues of court; a mysterious hero who is alternately alluring and dangerous; and a treacherous plot that must be uncovered and stopped before it is too late. As I read on, however, my initial excitement faded as the mysterious hero and court intrigue failed to measure up to my expectations.

Said hero, Gavriel Duval, was probably the biggest disappointment. I had such high hopes for him, as he seemed to be a great match for Ismae, the book’s feisty assassin protagonist. He’s dangerous, sexy, and capable of meeting any challenge, the type of character who would make either a formidable opponent or a powerful ally. Anticipating all sorts of daring hijinks and near-death experiences, I couldn’t wait to discover what dangerous situations Duval and Ismae would find themselves in at the royal court of Brittany.

The reality fell far short of my imagination. Duval’s loyalty to the Duchess of Brittany requires him to spend the majority of his time debating political alliances or attending privy council meetings. While I got the impression that there is a capable, deadly side to Duval, I seldom got to see it in action, as Duval was generally acting in the role of politician rather than soldier. With the exception of one or two brief fight scenes, he paces, broods, and strategizes more than he does anything else.

Another letdown was the plot. I enjoyed the air of mystery and liked that it was Ismae’s mission to protect the Duchess of Brittany from traitors in her court. However, like Duval, the storyline stops short of being as amazing as it has the potential to be. For example, there isn’t nearly enough tension surrounding Ismae’s day-to-day life in the royal court. There is little to no cattiness, gossip, or manipulation going on, which is disappointingly unrealistic, especially considering that all of the courtiers assume Ismae to be the mistress of the most influential man in the kingdom. I had hoped for scenes in which Ismae must contend with jealous rivals, judgmental old biddies, or handsome yet wily casanovas, but said scenes never transpired.

Despite these disappointments, I did enjoy reading Grave Mercy. This is mostly because of Ismae, the novel’s saving grace. In the beginning I was worried that she might become one of those protagonists who is so strong and capable that she is impossible to relate to, but this fear turned out to be unfounded. Ismae’s prodigious talent for poisoning, disemboweling, and otherwise incapacitating foes is tempered by her lack of social and relationship skills. Ismae is closed off, has a hard time trusting people, and struggles to convincingly play the role of a seductress. She possesses fears, doubts, and a degree of self-consciousness that is at odds with her physical strength. These vulnerabilities went a long way toward endearing her to me.

Another great thing about Grave Mercy is that it’s set in a historical period with which I’m not very familiar. I appreciated reading a regency novel that wasn’t based in Tudor England, and it was a good opportunity to learn about a new era. I was struck by just how authentic the characters’ language and behavior feels and was so relieved to find that there were no jarring sentences or turns of phrase to ruin the flow and throw me out of the time period.

All in all, Grave Mercy is a decent book, and I did like reading it, even if Duval didn’t turn out to be the next Valek or Marquis of Shevraeth. Therefore, if you liked Poison Study and have come to terms with the fact that no other novel can quite measure up to it, then Grave Mercy might be a good book for you.

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