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Dear Kelsey,

I knew from the moment I saw it I would hate Grave Mercy. I disliked it as I checked it out from the library; I disliked it when I started reading.  I especially disliked it as I found glowing review after glowing review on every detail of the plot, the characters, the cover.

I hate it.

At first, it was the White Girl/Pretty Dress thing. I am clearly not the target market for these covers, because even plot summaries that would otherwise sound fairly intriguing (Four days to live?) inevitably progress from creepy to bland to forgotten. They don’t offend me because they simply never register. And while these Gloomy Prom Dress Girls are clearly the latest incarnation of the pale/perfect/dying/dead girls on book covers (and I completely agree with the critiques of this trend), I still feel this guilty appreciation for the ease with which it lets me skip over books that I clearly won’t enjoy.

Grave Mercy (His Fair Assassin Trilogy #1) Cover, Grave Mercy Robin LaFevers, hardcover, review, book cover, design, girls in gowns, marketing, target audience, crossbow, pretty dress, lame, YA, young adult, medival

And I said as much when you proposed the book. Or maybe you just inferred it from the tone of my “Really, Kelsey?”  

Because you instantly replied “She has a crossbow. That’s new.”

“That’s even worse,” I grumbled.

Nothing about Ismae’s crossbow subverts or negates the uncomfortable implications of the Girls in Gowns trend. She is still a traditionally feminine body put on display, gazing off into the distance with no real focus or intent. She’s beautiful, isolated, and nonthreatening. The crossbow is merely a prop—a poorly-disguised attempt to advertise her as a “Strong Female Character” without providing any substance for the claim. She’s not even aiming the bloody thing—she’s barely holding it! 

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1) Cover, suzanne collins, trilogy, katniss, design, badass

Compare this cover to The Hunger Games. Katniss wears many a fancy outfit in the series—from the flame cloak to the dress made of jewels, the voter-elimination designed wedding gown and the transforming mockingjay dress—but the covers never flaunt her as an object of visual display. Ismae may very well wear a luxurious medieval gown at some point in the novel, but by conforming so religiously to a trend that puts women in a position of passive visual appraisal, any argument about textual fidelity rings false.

So perhaps I went into the book a little prejudiced.

However, my frustration with what I assumed the story would be was never contradicted by the story itself.  

Let me talk for a minute—or several—about trust. Because, as in the real world, trust in fiction is a delicate balance.

John Watson trusts Sherlock in the face of Sherlock’s own claim to have made up his cases and to have deduced nothing.

Katniss Everdeen trusts no one, to such an extent that an admission of love is an act of high betrayal—a mockery.

Trust is not something given or taken away lightly. Trust cannot follow betrayal in rapid succession over and over again. If a character does not trust someone, she is NOT going to be persuaded by his earnest blue eyes or the conviction in his voice. To believe in such trivial evidence is, by its very nature, to trust that person.

Crown Duel Cover Sherwood Smith Mel paperback court duel book cover, violent, fighting, girl,

Black eye, chain mail, and eyes narrowed in dislike. THIS is how to show a pretty, Violent!Girl without demeaning.

Think of Mel in Crown Duel. Despite all evidence to the contrary, she does not trust Shevraeth. She eventually and reluctantly accepts his food and hospitality, but she runs away as soon as she is able and thinks her brother a gullible fool for not doing the same. She does not waver or revise her opinion until it is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to have been wildly incorrect. Elizabeth Bennet wouldn’t have been half so compelling if she found Darcy’s rumpled dishevelment sufficient evidence of his good character. 

If your heroine is bitter and broken and cynical—if she has been abused and unloved and channels her rage into a killing gift of unprecedented grace in the service of the one organization she has come to trust in this crazy mixed up world—she is not going to respond to the sudden arrival of a boy who she is unable to immediately kill but must still interact with regularly for some laughably implausible reason (a boy who is cute, subtly dangerous, and  actively threatening to the very organization that has given her life meaning) by becoming suddenly convinced of his claims for such insubstantial reasons as “apparent sincerity” and “conviction.” If your character is persuaded “against her better judgment” she trusts him.

And perhaps I am belaboring this point, but I do so for a three reasons:

  1. If her immediate and inexplicable trust in him despite her declarations to the contrary is a way to show her lack of self awareness, it’s a pretty standard narrative device. However, in order to make use of this kind of technique, the character needs to have a depth to their personality that I just didn’t feel from Ismae. Other than her preternatural abilities with murder, the only solid details I have is her bitter hatred toward men and her fidelity to the convent for her rescue. Plenty of novels (good ones! Enjoyable ones!) have protagonists that can be pretty thoroughly summed up with a few key characteristics, but the less access a reader has to a character’s conflicting motivations, the less likely we are to permit exceptions or inconsistency. If a character with little complexity compromises the few concrete traits we’re given, their entire character feels sacrificed to the whim of the author and the plot. Now they’re in love. Now she’s conflicted. Where, exactly, is the tension?

    Mistborn Trilogy Cover Brandon Sanderson ebook Design book cover, vin, fog, mist, mistborn: the final empire, e-book

    This girl’s got places to go, people to stab. Go find your passive sexualized objects elsewhere.

  2. As soon as he comes to town, everything is about him.* Exhibit A: the contrived “I have to pretend to be your mistress so I can be a spy, but this means we have to stick close together even though I totally hate you.” How does this make sense, again? Everything about her life at the convent—which, tellingly, skips ahead with a succinct “Three Years Later,”—essentially vanishes  in a flurry
    of goodbyes because really, she must leave immediately with this impudent stranger, the abbess insists! Romance-dominant storylines have their time and place and I promise I am not immune to witty flirtatious banter. But why do an overwhelming number of female badasses need to be predominantly—if not exclusively—motivated by the schemes of their Designated Romantic Hero? I would present Katniss and Vin as notable exceptions, for while they do have romance options on the sidelines, their primary concerns are their primary concerns. Staying alive, protecting loved ones, pulling a heist, starting a rebellion—these are the things that motivate their actions and, shockingly enough, keep them plenty busy throughout their respective trilogies. They don’t need to compromise their essential values to usher in a romance, and when romance arrives, it does not eclipse every single other thing about them.
  3. Male assassins/spies/smugglers/secret agents never seem to need this kind of blatant vulnerability to create an interesting story.

I usually try to avoid such aggressively negative reviews but, as in my last one, I genuinely don’t understand. Why does everybody like this book? It upset me so much I wasn’t even able to finish it, but I am clearly the minority opinion. 

4. And by the way, can we please acknowledge that “sex is a woman’s best/most reliable weapon” is NOT an enlightened feminist stance and stop pretending that it’s not offensive? “Womanly Arts,” indeed.


Maggie Faber

*As a side note, His Fair Assassin is the title of this series. This is presumably a reference to the God of Death rather than Duval, but it certainly doesn’t challenge the lack of internally motivated plot direction. 

P.S. Can we be best friends with this blog: www.booksidoneread.comHer review is perfect, except that she left out my personal favorite WTF line: “I can hear Duval pacing in the next room, restless and agitated, his anger rolling in under the door like some foul miasma off a fetid marsh.”