Friday, April 25, 2014

Book Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers
I don't normally read YA, but the description of this book hooked me instantly: Medieval nuns in Brittany teach young women how to become assassins, all in service of Mortain, the God of Death. I mean, seriously. Nuns teaching girls to use crossbows and poison? I'm there. Let's see if the book lives up to its premise.

3 Things I Really Liked

1. The setup. Let me reiterate...medieval nuns training teenage girls to be assassins? What more do you need, people? This is awesome. And it mostly works. The novel opens with Ismae Rienne, our 17-year-old heroine, on her wedding day. Traded away by her turnip farmer stepfather to a cruel man, Ismae faces a future of abuse, verbal and otherwise. She escapes to the convent of St. Mortain. Mortain is a pagan god of death, still served by the nuns of the convent. 

As it turns out, Ismae is not susceptible to poison because her real father is Mortain himself. Now we start getting into one of the parts of the book I didn't like (#3 in the "dislike" section below), but stay with me for the time being. Anyhoo, the nuns at the convent train Death's handmaidens, as they're called. Each nun imparts a skill: fighting, poisoning, seduction, etc. When the girls have all the training they need, they are sent out into the world to do the abbess's bidding. As setups go, it's golden. Who doesn't want to know what happens to a 17-year-old girl, taught to kill, who's sent out into a medieval world full of bad people? I would kill for this to be my idea, my series. My hat's off to Robin LaFevers on this one.

2. The setting. Medieval Brittany feels real. From the clothes to the food to the locations to the events off the page, it felt like I was there. This must have been a hard line to walk for a YA author. You have readers like me, who, even as a kid, wanted extremely realistic historical settings. Then you have readers who want a little bit of setting, but might get overwhelmed by the vocabulary and the setting if it's too heavy-handed. In a YA, you have to watch out for these things. But the author handled this perfectly. 

Chuck Bass meme: Sells girlfriend for hotel / Still considered dreamy
3. The supporting characters. I can't talk about this without a big SPOILER ALERT. If you don't want to hear what happens to some of the characters in the end, skip down to the next section. The main character, Ismae, is fine. I didn't love her. I didn't hate her. She was a vehicle, and that's fine. Same goes for the love interest, Gavriel Duval (I keep wanting to call him "Duvel," after the excellent Belgian beer). I only watched the first couple episodes of Reign, but Ismae and Duval remind me of Mary and Francis. They get the job done, but you're probably not going to "ship" them the way you do Chuck and Blair, Dean and Castiel, or even Elena and Damon. There's not enough electricity there. They start out disliking each other and at cross-purposes, then they realize that's not the case and end up falling for each other. Big surprise. They don't do it with the magnetism of Chuck and Blair, the endearing awkwardness of Dean and Castiel (okay, these two don't actually fall for each otherthey just become reluctant friends), or the smoldering intensity of Elena and Damon. They're vanilla. 

But the book shines in its secondary characters. Sybella, one of the other girls at the convent, gets sent away on a mission before Ismae. She's borderline crazy, and grabbed my attention more than Ismae did. That's with a maximum of a few chapters, as compared to Ismae's 560 pages. The hero's mother, Hivern, is your standard bitchy mother-in-law type...until she isn't, in one amazing scene where she reveals what she's been fighting for the whole time, and what it cost her. Suddenly, you don't want anything bad to happen to her. 

The hero's best friends, Beast and De Lornay, make you weep for the knights cut down at Agincourt, because you know they were all just like those two. They're playful, protective, brave, charming, and likable...and they don't get much face time, either. Still, and here's a big SPOILER, when you realize they don't make it out of the final battle, you're feeling like shit about it. Because they're good people, and they believe in something, and they should be rewarded. They aren't, not in their world, and the fact that I gave a crap tells me how skillfully the author built these characters.

6 Things I Didn't Like

What do we want? Past tense. When do we want it? Now.
1. It's told in present tense. Oh, for the love of all that's holy, when will people stop writing books in present tense? It's awkward as hell, and if you're writing a historical novel, PEOPLE ALREADY KNOW THIS HAPPENED A LONG TIME AGO. YOU'RE NOT FOOLING ANYONE. Think third-person past-tense historical fiction can't grab the reader? Ever heard of a book called Gone with the Wind? Present tense works for a short story because it creates a rhythm that's alluring. At 550+ pages, this isn't a short story. Present tense is far too limitingand gratingto hang your whole book on, let alone your whole series. It's trendy and overdone, like those bedazzled pockets on Miss Me jeans.

2. The rushed romance. For a book that takes 500+ pages to reach the climax, things sure wrap up in a hurry. Ismae and Duval spend the entire book moving gradually from mistrust to awkward cooperation to trust to physical attraction. And then, it's true love. Bam. Based on how slowly the rest of the romance moved, it's just not believable that their love is suddenly earth-shaking. The foundation is there, but not the frame. This is a big problem because what happens next (see next item) means you really have to believe in their love story.

3. The silly climax to the rushed romance. So...yeah. If you don't want to know how the book ends, skip to the next point. Consider yourself warned by a SPOILER ALERT. In the end of the book, the villain poisons Duval. This is believable. Then Ismae saves him by having sex with him. This is not. 

WTF breakdown: Remember how Ismae is immune to poison? Well, she kisses him and he gets a little better. Once she figures this out, she hi-tails it back to the palace, finds him mostly dead, and they have sex in a secret passageway. He recovers just about instantly. So, apparently she's more than immune...she's an antidote, too. This is borderline ridiculous. Why go through all the bother of turning a medieval girla creature virtually powerless in that societyinto a killing machine, and then have sex be her redeeming feature? I get that it was her choice, I get that she was in love...but it's a big let-down in terms of the potential empowerment theme this book could have conveyed. 

Henry VIII meme: Creates new church just to get divorce / kills new wife anyway4. The lack of explanation supporting the book's supernatural elements. This is one of the biggest problems I had with the book. I love genre mash-upsI've written a historical/paranormal romance mash-up. But the weird supernatural elements in this world are never explained satisfactorily. For instance, let's start with the fact that Death himself is Ismae's father. I don't mean spiritual father, or metaphorical father. We're talking biological father here. So...does this mean the old gods are real and Christianity is false? Or is Mortain Satan? The medieval world was highly polarized in terms of religion: You were a heretic or you were a believer. You had the burning of the Cathars and the Spanish Inquisition...obviously there were grave consequences for any deviation from orthodoxy. And then you have this convent, which defies orthodoxy and no one thinks it's weird. In fact, outsiders don't question it at all. I find this extremely odd for a book that is otherwise so firmly grounded in the nitty-gritty details of court life and politics. Not one person thinks being a pagan is weird, which I just don't buy. I mean, it's the fifteenth century. In about 100 years, Henry VIII will have to create an entirely new religious denomination to marry Anne Boleyn. Anne's stepdaughter will burn Protestants at the stake. As you can see, the supernatural element here creates more problems than it solves.

What makes it worse is that the story could easily have been told without any of the supernatural features that cloud the plot. Say you have an order of nuns who are famous for taking in girls who have been beaten or otherwise abused. The nuns teach them to defend themselves, using weapons and poison. They teach them the art of seduction so they always have control. Legit, right? Then the nuns deploy the girls on missions that help preserve the good folk of Brittany, including its young duchess. You could even have the nuns worship the old gods. But bringing the magic element without any feasible grounding is disorienting and gratuitous.

5. The strange combination of modern language and historical elements. So, the setting is great. We're rocking crossbows and porridge, and then Ismae says, "I'm starving." Say what? A lot of the book's dialogue feels modern. Since this is a YA, I see why the author did it. She's trying to appeal to modern readers, and unstuffy dialogue can really help with this. I get it, but I don't like it. This is another one of those hard lines to walk, the one she did so well with when it came to the setting. But the dialogue really drops the ball. You get words like "poleaxed" and "methinks" and then you get dialogue that sounds like it comes from an episode of Scandal. It's jarring.  

6. The extra 100-150 pages the book is carrying like dead weight. This book could have been edited  quite a bit without losing any of its spice. Things drag on for a loooooong time in the castle. Ismae doesn't even assassinate that many people. She mostly skulks through hallways and hides when people are coming. The slow-burn romance with Duval could have been accelerated to make the ending more believable. The bloated middle of the book is mostly about the political machinations surrounding the throne of Brittany. Who will the duchess marry...a French suitor, a Breton noble, or someone else entirely? The problem is this this particular problem isn't the book's central conflict. It's a plot device. It's entertaining, but if you removed it from the plot, absolutely nothing about the ending would change. Nothing. That's a problem. If you look at the Amazon reviews for this book, a LOT of people complain about the length and the amount of time spent on Breton politics. I like the politics, but I don't like it when subplots don't really affect the main plot. Trim the fat, or turn the fat into muscle with some revision. Easier said than done, I know.  

Obviously, I'm better at complaining than I am at praising. Despite the length of my "didn't like" points, I liked the book overall. In fact, I'll probably read the sequel, especially since it features Sybella (one of the really intriguing minor characters). 

It's rare to find a book with such a laser-focus on medieval politics written for a general audience, let alone a YA audience. I recommend it...with the caveats listed above.