Oh my goodness gracious, THIS BOOK. I’m stunned, and not in a good way.
Grave Mercy has been making the Internet rounds. It has an average 4 star rating on goodreads and 4.5 stars on Amazon. It has been lauded by many of the major book bloggers, has been commissioned for a series, and is a major hit among my classmates. Everyone was talking about, so I had to read it and of course I had to badger you into reading it too (Whoops. Sorry!).
From the description, this book sounds tailor-made for me: alternate (in this case, French) history, political intrigue, magical powers, a dash of romance, and a badass heroine who wears medieval finery and carries a crossbow. A badass heroine who happens to be an…assassin nun? Ok, I can work with that. I loved all these aspects and I love that kind of book. I was thinking the story would be something along the lines of Graceling crossed with Crown Duel. You know, a book of awesome.
You didn’t make it to the end, but I powered through in two massive gulps over two days. I ripped through the pages just waiting, waiting for it to improve, waiting to understand why everyone likes it.
See, I had faith in that crossbow. A book with a cover portraying its female protagonist holding a crossbow, no matter how passively, just has to live up to its jacket copy, right?
Uh, wrong. It never did and, frankly, I think the book got worse as it went on. You didn’t even make it to the true “romance” part in the second half. That really got me swearing at the page.
When I originally wrote this post I ranted on for four pages. That is ridiculous. So I tried to cut it down, to save you and me from boredom and to not repeat what you already so eloquently said (all of which I whole heartedly agree with). In the process it became a bit of a mess. So here is my best shot at my biggest beefs with the book.
[To Non-Maggie Readers: Spoilery Spoilers Ahead. You have been forewarned. Maggie, I think, doesn’t give a damn about being spoiled on this one].
This book was billed partially as book of intrigue—assassins infiltrating the court, the Duchess’ throne in danger, Man of Mystery, etc. But there was very little actual intrigue and, for an assassin book, there was a deficiency in sneaking about. Yes, there was an evil noble who wanted to marry the Duchess and steal her kingdom and there was an informant (who was also connected with a murder) hidden among the court. But the thing is, the main characters had little to do with the evil noble finally backing off—he just left in a huff and then proclaimed war on the Duchess. That left the mysterious informant—whom I guessed the identity of chapters ahead of Ismae.
Now you know me, I am TERRIBLE at figuring out plots ahead of time. I was dumbstruck by Dumbledore’s death and, and as you love to remind me while cackling with delight, I was convinced, convinced Snape was bad right up until he was proven otherwise. So for me to guess a plot ahead of time is not a good sign.
Then there was the mythology of the book. *Sigh*
I’ve read books with new religions and mythologies that are completely convincing and are fully integrated into their world. The Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, all of Tamora Pierce’s books, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemisin come to mind as fabulous examples of this. It is a tricky business revealing the mythology of an “unknown” religion and how it is woven into everyday life without overloading your reader with back-story or making it sound hokey.
In the case of Grave Mercy, we actually don’t learn enough. In a novel about a convent that trains assassins to follow the word of Death, we need to know how their religion works: how is it integrated into daily life, how do the French perceive it compared with the Bretons, and how do the nuns relate to the “saints” compared to everyday people. More information would be a HUGE help to the readers so we can better understand the motivations of the nuns and therefore Ismae.
The thing is, I can forgive a less than stellar plot or even poor mythology if I am drawn in by the characters. Characters that feel real, have depth, and grow over the course of the novel. I guess you can say Ismae grew and changed—she went from a victimized girl to an assassin nun. But she was a flat character who was not easy to connect with. She never quite conquered her earlier trauma or took charge of her fate. This could be a genuine character arc, but to me it seemed more like the author was aiming for her to become a badass and fell short. Ismae instead felt like a brainwashed follower of the convent who very seldom came up with solutions to her problems, thought outside the box, or viewed her world critically (which are not the characteristics of a strong heroine).
Then there was Duval. Oh Duval, he had the depth of a kiddy pool. In fact he is a Gary Stu, the male version of a Mary Sue. He has no faults, except maybe a temper (but of course he only becomes angry for noble reasons). He is honorable and good and we should like him because he is so honorable and good.
I could go on for pages about their relationship and how I found it unconvincing and problematic, but you already discussed the major issue of trust. Instead, I will leave you with this lovely excerpt from page 502, four pages from the end:
“Ismae, I would offer you marriage if you would have it.”
My whole body stills, shocked at the honor he would do me, an honor I never dared to imagine.
WTF? WHAT did you just think, Ismae?
I can imagine fans saying, “But Kelsey, it’s 15th century France. It was a sexist, marriage-obsessed world back then. In that time, such an anti-feminist response would be completely reasonable.”
All I can say to that is: Yes, this book is set in a version of 15th century France—a version that contains assassin nuns with mystical powers. Ismae’s whole goal in life is to have no man control her and to rule her own destiny. “Honor he would do for her?” Really? GAHHH.
Ok ok, I’m going to stop. I’d really like to hear why everyone thinks this is the best “strong female heroine” YA novel since sliced bread. Better than Alanna? Better than The Hunger Games, The Blue Sword, Graceling, Crown Duel, and Divergent? I’m completely and utterly baffled.
I’m so glad we’re going with your choice for the next book club book.