Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin Series #1)

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin Series #1)

4.4 269
by Robin LaFevers
     
 

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Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes a brutal arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of assassins – for a price. Packed with love, magic, and deadly games of courtly intrigue and treason, this first book of a fast-paced YA trilogy set in 15th-century France combines romance with captivating action.See more details below

Overview

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes a brutal arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of assassins – for a price. Packed with love, magic, and deadly games of courtly intrigue and treason, this first book of a fast-paced YA trilogy set in 15th-century France combines romance with captivating action.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
A Kirkus  Best Teen Book of 2012 (star) "With characters that will inspire the imagination, a plot that nods to history while defying accuracy, and a love story that promises more in the second book, this is sure to attract feminist readers and romantics alike."—Booklist, starred review

(star) "Fiction and history coalesce in a rich, ripping tale of assassinations, political intrigue and religion in 15th-century Brittany. ...LaFevers’ ambitious tapestry includes poison and treason and murder, valor and honor and slow love, suspense and sexuality and mercy. A page-turner—with grace."—Kirkus, starred review (star) "Rich in historical detail, well-realized characters, political machinations, and enticingly prickly scenes between Ismae and Duval, LaFevers's complex tale incorporates magic both sparingly and subtly. This powerful first volume of the His Fair Assassin series should attract many readers."—Publishers Weekly, starred review (star) "The book is well written and filled with fascinating, complex characters who function realistically in this invented medieval world."—School Library Journal, starred review "Readers will immediately warm to Ismae's determination to think for herself despite the powerfl influences of multiple others."—Bulletin "LaFevers is an artful storyteller who has created a strong lead character....The tale is one of scheming nobles, political subterfuge, murder, and romance—all of the best aspects of a good read. And like any good mystery, the plot is unpredictable."—VOYA

Jessica Bruder
Despite Ismae's ugly past and her preoccupation with murder, Grave Mercy isn't heavy reading. It's darkly funny, a fantasy based on the rough contours of history, one that develops into an adventuresome…romance.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Middle-grade author LaFevers (the Theodosia books) makes an outstanding foray into historical romance with an enthralling recreation of 15th-century Brittany. At its center is 17-year-old Ismae, a badly scarred peasant girl who, fleeing her thuggish husband, is taken in by the convent of St. Mortain, whose patron saint is the ancient, pre-Christian god of death. Believed to be Death’s literal daughter, blessed (or cursed) with powerful gifts, Ismae is trained as an assassin, highly competent with all weapons and poisons. After two successful missions, she is dispatched to the court of Anne of Brittany to keep track of Duval, the duchess’s handsome and tempestuous illegitimate older brother. Reluctantly, she falls in love with him, knowing full well that she may someday be called upon to end his life. Rich in historical detail, well-realized characters, political machinations, and enticingly prickly scenes between Ismae and Duval, LaFevers’s complex tale incorporates magic both sparingly and subtly. This powerful first volume of the His Fair Assassin series should attract many readers. Ages 14–up. Agent: Erin Murphy, Erin Murphy Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Children's Literature - Heather Kinard
Seventeen year old Ismae still bears the red scar that reaches from her left shoulder to her right hip. It is the only visible sign of the herbwitch's poison used at her birth when it was revealed her father was St. Mortain, the God of Death. She survived the poisoning, but lived a life of constant violence at the hands of those around her. Finally, after escaping from the brutality of an arranged marriage, Ismae finds acceptance with the sisters at the convent of St. Mortain. In her new life, she serves as a handmaiden to Death and is trained as an assassin to take the lives of those marked by the god himself. Ismae finds friendship and acceptance at the convent until an assignment takes her to the high court of Brittany where she must pose as mistress to the mysterious Gavriel Duval. The purpose of the mission is to protect Anne, the Duchess of Brittany. Duval, Anne's half-brother, appears to be her closest protector, but the convent is suspicious of him and asks Ismae to determine where his true loyalty lies. Ismae is prepared to act on orders from the convent, but she is not prepared for the romantic feelings she begins to have for Duval. Convinced that he is absolutely loyal to the Crown, Ismae is now faced with the possibility that the biggest threat is actually from those she trusts at the convent. Ismae also discovers that there is a time for redemption and forgiveness and that death is not always the answer. This book is full of history, intrigue and romance and is very well written. The characters are well-developed with strong males and females, but girls in particular will enjoy this book. Reviewer: Heather Kinard
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Ismae Rienne, born with an ugly red scar, is believed to have been sired by Death himself, and, when she escapes from her abusive husband on her wedding night, she finds refuge in the convent of St. Mortain where handmaidens are prepared to carry out Death's wishes. Trained in poisons, weaponry, and the wiles of seduction, she is sent off to prove herself by posing as the mistress of Gavriel Duval, a Breton working against the French so that his sister Anne can rightfully be crowned Duchess of Brittany. The political intrigue and resulting betrayals that the teen witnesses lead her to denounce the treasonous chancellor, save Duval from the traitor's poison, and realize that she wishes to follow the teachings of the convent, not as an assassin, but as one who frees suffering souls in their final moments. Though in love with Duval, she recognizes her own worth and vows to be faithful to her mission, living a life dedicated not to vengeance, but to mercy. This is a rich portrayal of the complexities of courtly life in 15th-century Brittany, featuring explicit details of costume and custom and showing how the lives of royalty and those who served them intertwined. The short, well-paced chapters will leave readers breathlessly waiting for more. Ismae and Duval are particularly well drawn, and the many twists and turns that influence their relationship are both fascinating and believable. While the story is sure to resonate with adolescents who are intrigued by vampires, werewolves, and their cultures of death, the violence, the sexual references (including the description of Ismae and Duval's first sexual encounter), and the idea of training servants for Death are for older readers. The book is well written and filled with fascinating, complex characters who function realistically in this invented medieval world.—Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, The Naples Players, FL

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780544022492
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
03/05/2013
Series:
His Fair Assassin Series, #1
Pages:
566
Sales rank:
63,284
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.50(d)
Lexile:
850L (what's this?)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Brittany 1485

I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.

I am told my father flew into a rage and raised his hand to my mother even as she lay weak and bleeding on the birthing bed. Until the herbwitch pointed out to him that if my mother had lain with the god of death, surely He would not stand idly by while my father beat her.

I risk a glance up at my husband-to-be, Guillo, and wonder if my father has told him of my lineage. I am guessing not, for who would pay three silver coins for what I am? Besides, Guillo looks far too placid to know of my true nature. If my father has tricked him, it will not bode well for our union. That we are being married in Guillo’s cottage rather than a church further adds to my unease.

I feel my father’s heavy gaze upon me and look up. The triumph in his eyes frightens me, for if he has triumphed, then I have surely lost in some way I do not yet understand. Even so, I smile, wanting to convince him I am happy—for there is nothing that upsets him more than my happiness.

But while I can easily lie to my father, it is harder to lie to myself. I am afraid, sorely afraid of this man to whom I will now belong. I look down at his big, wide hands. Just like my father, he has dirt caked under his fingernails and stains in the creases of his skin. Will the semblance end there? Or will he, too, wield those hands like a cudgel?

It is a new beginning, I remind myself, and in spite of all my trepidations, I cannot extinguish a tiny spark of hope. Guillo wants me enough to pay three silver coins. Surely where there is want, there is room for kindness? It is the one thing that keeps my knees from knocking and my hands from trembling. That and the priest who has come to officiate, for while he is naught but a hedge priest, the furtive glance he sends me over his prayer book causes me to believe he knows who and what I am.

As he mutters the ceremony’s final words, I stare at the rough hempen prayer cord with the nine wooden beads that proclaim him a follower of the old ways. Even when he ties the cord around our hands and lays the blessings of God and the nine old saints upon our union, I keep my gaze downcast, afraid to see the smugness in my father’s eyes or what my husband’s face might reveal.

When the priest is done, he pads away on dirty feet, his rough leather sandals flapping noisily. He does not even pause long enough to raise a tankard to our union. Nor does my father. Before the dust from my father’s departing cart has settled, my new husband swats my rump and grunts toward the upstairs loft.

I clench my fists to hide their trembling and cross to the rickety stairs. While Guillo fortifies himself with one last tankard of ale, I climb up to the loft and to the bed I will now share with him. I sorely miss my mother, for even though she was afraid of me, surely she would have given me a woman’s counsel on my wedding night. But both she and my sister fled long ago, one back into the arms of death, and the other into the arms of a passing tinker.

I know, of course, what goes on between a man and a woman. Our cottage is small and my father loud. There was many a night when urgent movement accompanied by groans filled our dark cottage. The next day my father always looked slightly less bad tempered, and my mother more so. I try to convince myself that no matter how distasteful the marriage bed is, surely it cannot be any worse than my father’s raw temper and meaty fists.

The loft is a close, musty place that smells as if the rough shutters on the far wall have never been opened. A timber-and-rope bed frame holds a mattress of straw. Other than that, there are only a few pegs to hang clothes on and a plain chest at the foot of the bed.

I sit on the edge of the chest and wait. It does not take long. A heavy creak from the stairs warns me that Guillo is on his way. My mouth turns dry and my stomach sour. Not wanting to give him the advantage of height, I stand.

When he reaches the room, I finally force myself to look at his face. His piggish eyes gorge themselves on my body, going from the top of my head down to my ankles, then back up to my breasts. My father’s insistence on lacing my gown so tight has worked, as Guillo can look at little else. He gestures with his tankard toward my bodice, slopping ale over the sides so that it dribbles to the floor. "Remove it." Desire thickens his voice.

I stare at the wall behind him, my fingers trembling as I raise them to my laces. But not fast enough. Never fast enough. He takes three giant strides toward me and strikes me hard across the cheek. "Now!" he roars as my head snaps back.

Bile rises in my throat and I fear I will be sick. So this is how it will be between us. This is why he was willing to pay three silver coins.

My laces are finally undone, and I remove my bodice so that I stand before him in my skirt and shift. The stale air, which only moments before was too warm, is now cold as it presses against my skin.

"Your skirt," he barks, breathing heavily.

I untie the strings and step out of my skirt. As I turn to lay it on the nearby bench, Guillo reaches for me. He is surprisingly quick for one so large and stupid, but I am quicker. I have had long years of practice escaping my father’s rages.

I jerk away, spinning out of his reach, infuriating him. In truth, I give no thought to where I will run, wishing only to hold off the inevitable a little longer.

There is a loud crash as his half-empty tankard hits the wall behind me, sending a shower of ale into the room. He snarls and lunges, but something inside me will not—cannot—make this easy for him. I leap out of his reach.

But not far enough. I feel a tug, then hear a rip of cloth as he tears my thin, worn chemise.

Silence fills the loft—a silence so thick with shock that even his coarse breathing has stopped. I feel his eyes rake down my back, take in the ugly red welts and scars the poison left behind. I look over my shoulder to see his face has gone white as new cheese, his eyes wide. When our glances meet, he knows—knows—that he has been duped. He bellows then, a long, deep note of rage that holds equal parts fury and fear.

Then his rough hand cracks against my skull and sends me to my knees. The pain of hope dying is worse than his fists and boots.

When Guillo’s rage is spent, he reaches down and grabs me by the hair. "I will go for a real priest this time. He will burn you or drown you. Maybe both." He drags me down the steps, my knees bumping painfully against each one. He continues dragging me through the kitchen, then shoves me into a small root cellar, slams the door, and locks it.

Bruised and possibly broken, I lie on the floor with my battered cheek pressed into the cool dirt. Unable to stop myself, I smile.

I have avoided the fate my father had planned for me. Surely it is I who have won, not he.

The sound of the bolt lifting jerks me awake. I shove myself to a sitting position and clutch the tattered remains of my chemise around me. When the door opens, I am stunned to see the hedge priest, the same small rabbit of a man who’d blessed our marriage only hours before. Guillo is not with him, and any moment that does not contain my father or Guillo is a happy one by my reckoning.

The priest looks over his shoulder, then motions for me to follow.

I rise to my feet, and the root cellar spins dizzily. I put a hand to the wall and wait for the feeling to pass. The priest motions again, more urgently. "We’ve not much time before he returns."

His words clear my head as nothing else can. If he is acting without Guillo’s knowledge, then he is most assuredly helping me. "I’m coming." I push away from the wall, step carefully over a sack of onions, and follow the hedge priest into the kitchen. It is dark; the only light comes from the banked embers in the hearth. I should wonder how the priest found me, why he is helping me, but I do not care. All I can think is that he is not Guillo and not my father. The rest does not matter.

He leads me to the back door, and in a day full of surprises, I find one more as I recognize the old herbwitch from our village hovering nearby. If I did not need to concentrate so hard on putting one foot in front of the other, I would ask her what she is doing here, but it is all I can do to stay upright and keep from falling on my face in the dirt.

As I step into the night, a sigh of relief escapes me. It is dark out, and darkness has always been my friend. A cart waits nearby. Touching me as little as possible, the hedge priest helps me into the back of it before hurrying around to the driver’s bench and climbing in. The priest glances over his shoulder at me, then averts his eyes as if he’s been burned. "There’s a blanket back there," he mutters as he steers the nag out onto the cobbled lane. "Cover yourself."

The unyielding wood of the cart presses painfully into my bruised bones, and the meager blanket scratches and reeks of donkey. Even so, I wish they’d brought a second one for padding. "Where are you taking me?"

"To the boat."

A boat means water, and crossing water means I will be far from the reach of my father and Guillo and the Church. "And where is this boat taking me?" I ask, but the priest says nothing. Exhaustion overwhelms me. I do not have the strength; plucking answers from him is like pulling meager berries from a thorny bush. I lie down in the cart and give myself over to the horse’s jolting gait.

And so my journey across Brittany begins. I am smuggled like some forbidden cargo, hidden among turnips or in hay in the back of carts, awakened by furtive voices and fumbling hands as I am passed from hedge priest to herbwife, a hidden chain of those who live in accordance with the old saints and are determined to keep me from the Church. The hedge priests, with their awkward movements and musty, stale robes, are kind enough, but their fingers are unschooled in tenderness or compassion. It is the herbwitches I like most;, their chapped, raw hands are gentle as lamb’s wool, and the sharp, pungent smell of a hundred different herbs clings to them like a fragrant shadow. Often as not, they give me a tincture of poppy for my injuries, while the priests merely give me their sympathy, and some begrudgingly at that.

When I awake on what I reckon to be the fifth night of my journey, I smell the salty tang of the sea and remember the promise of a boat. I struggle to sit up, pleased to find my bruises pain me less and my ribs do not burn. We are passing through a small fishing village. I pull the blanket close against the chill and wonder what will happen next.

At the very edge of the village sits a stone church. It is to this that the latest hedge priest steers our cart and I am relieved to see the door bears the sacred anchor of Saint Mer, one of the old saints. The priest reins his horse to a stop. "Get out."

I cannot tell if it is fatigue or disdain I hear in his voice, but either way, my journey is almost done, so I ignore it and clamber out of the cart, keeping the blanket clutched tight around me lest I offend his modesty.

Once he secures the horse, he leads me toward the beach, where a lone boat waits. The inky black ocean spreads out as far and wide as my eye can see, making the vessel seem very small.

An old sailor sits hunched in the prow. A shell bleached white as bone hangs from a cord at his neck, marking him as a worshiper of Saint Mer. I wonder what he thinks of being woken in the middle of the night and made to row strangers out into the dark sea.

The sailor’s faded blue eyes skim over me. He nods. "Climb in. We en’t got all night." He thrusts an oar at me, and I grasp it to steady myself as I get into the boat.

The small vessel dips and rocks and for a moment I am afraid it will tip me into the icy water. But it rights itself and then the priest steps in, causing the hull to sink even lower.

The old sailor grunts, then returns the oar to its pin and begins rowing.

We reach the small island just as dawn pinkens the eastern horizon. It looks barren in the early, spare light. As we draw closer, I see a standing stone next to a church and realize we’ve come to one of the old places of worship.

Gravel crunches under the hull of the boat as the old sailor rows right up onto the beach. He jerks his head toward the stone fortress. "Get out then. The abbess of St. Mortain be expectin’ ye."

Saint Mortain? The patron saint of death. A tremor of unease washes through me. I look at the priest, who averts his eyes, as if looking at me is too great a mortal temptation.

Clutching the blanket close around me, I climb awkwardly from the boat and step into the shallows. Torn between gratitude and annoyance, I curtsy slightly, careful to let the blanket slip from my shoulder for the merest of seconds.

I t is enough. Satisfied at the priest’s gasp and the old sailor’s cluck of his tongue, I turn and slog through the cold water to the beach. In truth, I have never flashed so much as an ankle before, but I am sorely vexed at being treated like a temptress when all I feel is bruised and broken.

When I reach the patchy grass that grows between the rocks, I look back toward the boat, but it has already put out to sea. I turn and begin making my way to the convent, eager to see what those who worship Death want of me.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
(star) "With characters that will inspire the imagination, a plot that nods to history while defying accuracy, and a love story that promises more in the second book, this is sure to attract feminist readers and romantics alike."—Booklist starred review

(star) "Fiction and history coalesce in a rich, ripping tale of assassinations, political intrigue and religion in 15th-century Brittany. ...LaFevers’ ambitious tapestry includes poison and treason and murder, valor and honor and slow love, suspense and sexuality and mercy. A page-turner—with grace."—Kirkus, starred review (star) "Rich in historical detail, well-realized characters, political machinations, and enticingly prickly scenes between Ismae and Duval, LaFevers's complex tale incorporates magic both sparingly and subtly. This powerful first volume of the His Fair Assassin series should attract many readers."—Publishers Weekly, starred review (star) "The book is well written and filled with fascinating, complex characters who function realistically in this invented medieval world."—School Library Journal, starred review "Readers will immediately warm to Ismae's determination to think for herself despite the powerfl influences of multiple others."—Bulletin "LaFevers is an artful storyteller who has created a strong lead character....The tale is one of scheming nobles, political subterfuge, murder, and romance—all of the best aspects of a good read. And like any good mystery, the plot is unpredictable."—VOYA

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