Today, we have a very special guest post from my good friend and fellow murder-nun enthusiast, @ank_wobl! Please enjoy her first review here at Mandaray Reads! — M
Inspired by the fabulous Mandaray, I dove into Goodreads determined to find, if not the mythical Vampire Book That Doesn’t Enrage Me, then at least something to re-spark my relationship with fiction. We’ve had some bad times in the last decade, fiction and I, but I wasn’t ready to give it up.
Grave Mercy (Robin LeFevers, 2012) is a story set in an alternate late 15th c. Brittany, where the old ways live on beneath the trappings of the Church. A peasant girl, Ismae, is marked from birth as being a daughter of Saint Mortain — the god of Death. She escapes her dismal home life and is taken in by the convent of sisters who maintain Mortain’s worship by killing those marked by the saint for death. Ismae is swept up into a deadly game of politics with a man whose loyalty she can’t trust, but whom she must rely on if she is to fulfill her calling as a holy assassin for Mortain, and save Brittany from her enemies.
Late-medieval alt-history politics and supernatural death cults of murder-nuns? It may not be the VBTDEM, but this is definitely in my grown-up-goth wheelhouse. It’s titled GRAVE MERCY for goodness’ sake.
First and foremost, the book feels as though the author started from page one, scene one, and wrote from there to the end, as the quality and confidence noticeably increase as the book continues. The story is written from Ismae’s first person perspective, and suffers from that deadly allergy to contractions that authors sometimes get when they want to convey gravity or historicity. Instead, it renders the narration stiff and the exposition, well, screamingly expository.
Unfortunately this writing style makes it difficult to initially connect with Ismae, and I found myself surprised to learn that she’s only 13 or so when we first meet her, as her internal narrative gives no indication she’s anything other than adult. Fortunately, Ismae’s character arc improves as the story goes on, and I was pleased that she’s shown to be a capable fighter and investigator. It was also intensely refreshing to not have much of any physical description of Ismae, other than what marks her as a murder-nun. She’s given lots of delicious agency instead, which really starts to shine in the latter half of the book as her personality has a chance to be more developed. She’s capable, murder-y when she needs to be, and does most of the saving. This is good stuff, y’all.
Now onto the bad.
The very first scene is an attempted sexual assault and successful physical assault by the man she’s been forcibly wed too by her (also abusive) father. As an opener, this made me extremely wary for the rest of the book, but this was the only incident of this nature that is directly narrated. It does make me wonder why the author included it, especially as something that happens in real-time. If it had to happen, she could recount the broad strokes, rather than place us in Ismae’s perspective for quick shock-and-sympathy. Abuse is far too frequently used as narrative shorthand, instead of something massive and difficult and needing nuanced and understanding treatment. The scene is entirely skippable, which tells you something.
Ismae also makes a number of internal remarks about sex work — usually in expressing her distaste for appearing like “a harlot”, or describing one of her teachers as having “the makings of a fine lightskirt”. It’s evidently perfectly all right to reject the abuse of patriarchal society by becoming a professional murder-nun, but god forbid you have sex for money. “Whore” is used a number of times as an insult.
In the same vein, there’s a noticeable weight given to ‘purity’, and all that implies. Ismae mentions more than a few times how she skipped lectures on “womanly arts”, which are, as we all know, the sexy arts. It’s as if the author couldn’t allow her protagonist, a gal trained by a freaky convent as a holy murderer, to be tainted by icky sex stuff, and so Ismae has to be the blushing virgin. It felt strange and somewhat anachronistic that sexuality is treated as a taboo, as something that ruins women, instead of natural or part of her assassin’s toolkit.
A similar attitude is expressed towards traditionally coded-as-feminine subjects, such as gowns and courtly manners. The author’s early efforts to make Ismae Not Like The Other Girls makes for an unintentional ugly running commentary about women who might have those interests. While internalized misogyny is all too common within the romance genre, it still felt disappointing. The premise of this book is excellent, and the romance tropes began to feel bolted on to the author’s better ideas, as if she needed the narrative structures to fall back on before she could find her own voice.
Those better ideas are so cool that I almost felt it distracting that Ismae insisted on having fluttery-feels for Lord Brooding in the first part of the book instead of devoting her life to being awesome and murdering with murder-nun powers. Lord Brooding dresses in black and his Man Pain comes from being a bastard — fairly standard Man Painery, though he’s quickly shown to have courtesy and empathy. I’m not a fan of Hot Brooders who coast along on their supposed hotness and only show kindness after bodices have been ripped, but this tortured hot bod apologizes while he and Ismae are still in the inexplicably-hate-each-other stage, so I’ll allow it.
While much of his character still falls well-within the trope of Romance Novel Protagonist Guy, I have to say he’s probably one of the better romantic interests I’ve read, and I quite appreciated that the later sexual tension between the characters was deliciously kept to a few kisses and a long hand-hold. By the time they’re physical with each other, it feels very right. The sex is not explicit, but it happens at the right time for the right reasons, and that makes it all the better.
The author doesn’t shy from depicting her protagonist murdering; it’s not overwrought, but also not graphic, which allowed me to fill in all the gruesome blanks. The more extraordinary abilities granted to Ismae as a murder-nun are legitimately cool, and only become more intriguing as the story progresses. I was thrilled that these abilities didn’t get bogged down in exposition or reduced to a list of “powers”, but in fact were tied to her own character arc.
The political intrigue is thick and fun, though somewhat marred by the author’s tendency to characterize everyone as either good and honorable or, well, not. Very often Ismae’s first impressions of people are used as broad-brushes: either “her heart warms to them”, or they have “lips like slugs” and are capital-e-Evil. While the Bad Guy reveal might not be the most shocking, it’s still well done, and I was more than pleased with the politicking for a romance novel about murder-nuns.
All in all, for a book that had me regretting my purchase for the first hundred pages, I felt I got more than my money’s worth by the end. I don’t usually have patience for “it gets better!” with regards to media, but the author has presented a genuinely engaging premise with dark, intriguing themes that only get more interesting the further she strays from the traditional beats and tropes of romance novels.
Besides, there are some dreadfully fun lines, such as “…we serve as handmaidens to Death. When we are guided by His will, killing is a sacrament.” Amen, lady.
There are two further books in the series, featuring other gals from Murder Hogwarts, and I’ll be purchasing these very soon.
P.S. Thanks to Ms. Mandaray for giving me the chance (and the inspiration) for this review! She’s incredible, but you know that.