Sunday, March 4, 2012

GRAVE MERCY by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy
Robin LaFevers

Rating: A
Release Date: 04/03/12
Click here to read an exclusive excerpt!

Synopsis from
Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf? 

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of 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 destroy the lives of others. 

Ismae's most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, 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?

My thoughts on the book:
This book really surprised me. At first, I didn't know that it was set on the cusp of the High Middle Ages/Early Renaissance period. Once I found that out, I figured the book would bore me and that I wouldn't be able to connect to the character at all. However, I was wrong. Ismae has a terrible life until the people of the convent take her in. She is angry and bitter and ready to kill any man who dares to look at her, and the convent gives her the means and tools to do so. Over the course of the novel, though, she learns that life and death are both more complicated than she thought. Grave Mercy has strong characters, a captivating plot, and endless action. LaFevers will keep you guessing from the first page until the very last. 

The book starts out kind of slowly. It held my interest from page one, but the pages didn't start flying by until Ismae went to court. Then I could not put the book down. LaFevers holds true to the time period by having her characters speak properly. She goes through all of the rigid manners there, but somehow the dialogue doesn't fall flat. I thought the lack of contractions would bother me, but it didn't. She wasn't true to the dialogue of the region or the time period, thankfully, but she did hold true to the proper dialogue used in the higher echelons of society during the 1600s and beyond. I, for one, am glad that I didn't have to read a mixture of French and Gaelic, which was spoken in Bretagne at that time. There were some random French words throughout the narrative, but mainly just "merde," in place of obscenities, and "enchante," which I think everyone can translate. I didn't even notice the lack of contractions until the end of the book when I was like, "wow, that didn't bother me at all." 

Overall, I felt fully immersed in the time period, and because of LaFevers' wonderful world building, I could picture every place Ismae went, down to the types of clothes people were wearing. LaFevers doesn't overly explain things, she just gives enough description to get your imagination working, and I really liked that. She was very good at showing instead of telling, which you guys probably know by now is very important to me. 

The characters in this book were extremely well-developed, and I found myself attached to certain characters that I didn't even know I'd grown attached to until much later. Every single character, from Ismae, to the smallest secondary character, had a fully developed personality. And each character had his or her own quirks. No one was perfect, and no one was a cookie-cutter or stereotype. The characters added so much depth to this novel, and since I am a character person, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know each and every character. My favorites were Ismae (of course), Duval, and Beast. Ismae was extremely complex, and even though I couldn't relate to her all the time (I've never wanted to be an assassin, haha), I could sympathize with her. I cared what happened to her, and I knew that she wasn't as cold-hearted as she wanted to be. It was fascinating to see how her character grew and changed over the course of this novel. 

The plot of this book was a bit complicated, but I was able to keep everything straight, which is a testament to what a good author LaFevers is. Court life, apparently, was extremely involved, and everyone was out to screw everyone else over. I had the "mysterious" bad guy, along with the other liars, figured out pretty early on, but I'm good at guessing those things. However, I could not for the life of me figure out his motivations, so that was a surprise. It was also obvious who Ismae would fall for, even though she didn't trust him for a very long time. Given her past, though, who could blame her? Even though I knew who was lying, I did not know how they would go about deceiving poor Anne, the Duchess of Bretagne. It was interesting to watch the entire thing play out. I'll never want to be a queen/duchess/princess again, I promise you that, haha. LaFevers also did an excellent job of showing the plight of women during the 1400s-1500s. She showed that no matter what rank the woman had, she was trapped and could not do anything without a man. Furthermore, the women didn't even get to choose their husbands, which led to a ton of abusive marriages. I'm so glad I live in the 21st Century. 

Overall, I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves a good story. There are a few paranormal elements to the narrative, but not a lot. The romance moves at a natural pace and is believable. No insta-love here. The characters are complex and flawed, but still likable, and the plot is intriguing. You should definitely buy this book when it comes out. You won't be sorry. 

Want to pre-order Grave Mercy?


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Click read more to see Robin LaFever's discussion about the fascinating role of poisons in Grave Mercy!

Poison: The Assassin’s Art

“We will teach you to make poisons.” Sister Serafina’s voice is as gentle as the lulling waves. “Poisons that grip the gut and force a man’s life to dribble from him into a slop pail. Poisons to stop the heart or squeeze the humors from the body. Bloodwort to congeal the blood so it can no longer move through the veins. We will show you subtle poisons that take days to fell a man, and those that kill within seconds. And that is just to start.”

Ismae spends a large part of her time at the convent of Saint Mortain with the poisons mistress in her workshop. Too much time, perhaps, as she ends up missing other important lessons in order to keep up with the convent’s demand. However, other than Sister Serafina, Ismae is the only one who has the special skills needed to work with such toxins. Many of the plants and other ingredients used in the poisons were so toxic that merely touching them or breathing in their fumes at the wrong time could prove fatal to the other girls at the convent.

Poisons were a standby of the medieval assassin’s toolkit. They were cheap, easy to find, and even easier to use. Hemlock, nightshade, belladonna, monkshood, thorn apple, lily of the valley, rosary pea, hensbane, hellebore, foxglove, mandrake, opium, cantharides (extracted from dried beetles), mushrooms (including death cap, avenging angel, deadly webcap). Even the mold that formed on damp rye was poisonous and was called Saint Anthony’s Fire.

Depending on the ingredients used, some poisons provide a peaceful death, others a much more painful one, with paralysis of the heart, convulsions, cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, and the drying up of all bodily fluids.

True master poisoners weren’t content with a simple plant extract or decoction. They often created compounds or went for a multilayered approach to creating the perfect poison. For example, Sister Serafina, like other medieval poisoners, kept her own beehive. Her bees collected pollen almost exclusively from the toxic rhododendron and laurel plants, which in turn tainted the honey. Thus, even the sweeteners used in the convent’s poison were deadly.

But at the convent of Saint Mortain, Death’s handmaidens sometimes preferred an even subtler approach. In those cases they might serve their victim a quail who had fed on hemlock while alive, or a rabbit who dined on belladonna. The meat would often contain enough toxic effects of those plants to kill a person.
Ingesting poison wasn’t the only method employed by poisoners. Depending on what sort of access they had to their victim and how far away they wanted to be when the poison took effect, there were other ways to administer the deadly substance. Some poison had merely to come into contact with the skin. Historically, gloves, gowns, hunting horns, have all been used to transmit poison to a victim. For these sorts of applications, the convent used a formulation they called Arduina’s Snare.

Other substances were so toxic that simply breathing them brought death. Pomanders were often used by the noble classes to protect their delicate noses from the inescapable medieval stench found in cities. Consequently, pomanders also became a reliable method for delivering inhaled poisons. Ismae herself uses a carefully crafted candle that contains a poison called Night Whispers. Once lit, the fumes from that candle can kill in minutes.

Of course, the convent (or assassins) wasn’t the only source of poisons. Many, many noble and wealthy families in the Middle Ages had their own poisoner on staff. One simply never knew when there was a pesky political rival or fractious neighbor that needed to be got rid of.

This poisoner not only was responsible for having poisons at the ready for the family’s use, but was expected to be able to prepare a number of effective antidotes as well. Some popular antidotes were waving gemstones, such as emeralds or rubies, over one’s plate or cup to nullify the poison. Drinking from a unicorn’s horn was believed to neutralize all poison. (Narwhal tusks were often mistaken for unicorn’s horns back then and were even more expensive than the rubies or emeralds.) Bezoars stones were also renowned for their poison-neutralizing properties. These “stones” were found in the stomachs of goats. Or, without a goat, a deer’s, antelope’s, or gazelle’s. The stone was actually an indigestible object that had found its way into the animal’s stomach and had accumulated layers of secreted stomach chemicals to form a “stone” around the foreign object, much like a pearl forms around a grain of sand in an oyster. A popular practice of the time was to place a bezoars stone in your cup to neutralize any poison that might find its way there. (Can we all say, Ewwww!)

The very wealthy would also employ poison tasters who would sample any dishes or drinks for them. If they tasted nothing suspicious—and did not show any ill effects—then the food was considered safe to eat. The problem was, many medieval foods were so heavily spiced that poison was hard to detect until it was too late. Nor would a poison taster be of much use if the poison was absorbed through the skin or lungs.
For those who couldn’t afford any of the above, the best recommendation was to drink large quantities of milk. Or engage in vomiting and purging. Oddly enough, it is these last remedies that come the closest to modern science.


  1. I'm definitely earmarking this page for when I finish the book. I love reading other little tidbits after I've finished reading, like the potions discussion you included above. Can't wait for April now!

    Thanks for this excellent review. :)

  2. Hi Amber.
    I enjoyed your review. Very interesting stuff here!
    Have a wonderful day. :)

  3. I saw this book in several bloggers mailboxes and was surprised at how many had it. After your review, I wished I had a copy. I'll have to wait my turn, but it is definitely going on my wishlist. Great review :) Thanks!

  4. Hey!
    I found you through Book Blogs. Nice to "meet" you! I too enjoy reviewing books. Thanks for your comment on Book Blogs; I'll be following you now!

  5. Everybody keeps on telling me that this book is badass. So glad to see you liked it, too!

    Great review :)

  6. I thought this book was great, mostly coz it's so different from any other book I've read. I found it really interesting, and yeah I agree the beginning was a bit slow but I really got into it later and it definitely kept hold of my full attention. Awesome review!

  7. Sounds great!
    I saw the cover for book two and thought if it was really worth reading the first so clearly I must do it. I always like girls who are kind of a badass and it seems Ismae just me one, also the story sounds pretty original to me.


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