With series like the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books becoming international mega-bestsellers, young-adult fiction is now a thriving genre that draws readers of all ages. YA Why? is a periodic book-review column that looks at YA releases from the perspective of what they do or don’t do with familiar YA tropes, whether they appeal to a broad audience or strictly to the younger set, and why we might want to read them.
Book: Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, published April 3, 2012
Plot: Ismae, an abused, outcast 17-year-old girl in a fictionalized version of 15th-century Brittany, is taken in by a sect of assassin nuns who serve the will of Mortain, the god of death. They teach her to use her god-granted gifts to kill, including her ability to see the god’s shadowy marks on people he’s chosen for assassination. Then they send her on an information-gathering quest at court that lands her in the middle of a great deal of intrigue about who’s going to marry the young duchess ruling Brittany, and what her marriage will do to the duchy’s sovereignty from France. Along the way, Ismae begins to doubt whether her abbey is interpreting Mortain’s signs and wishes properly, and she starts to develop her own agendas and her own agency as a spy and bodyguard.
YA cliché? Grave Mercy centers on a handful of major, familiar YA tropes: teenagers with special powers, an ass-kicking female lead, a first-love/coming-of-age scenario, and a Chosen One type with abilities beyond her peers. The love story in particular is a standard “first they hate each other, then they love each other” scenario, like a PG version of a romance novel: Ismae is forced to work with her love interest against her will, and they both initially despise each other, before proximity and mutual respect start to turn their heads.
But LaFevers takes the other tropes in some interesting directions. LaFevers overtly recognizes how little power women had during the time period, and invents a fantasy-novel path for Ismae that gives her standing in society and a part to play in the intrigue that follows. Rather than dwelling on the wish-fulfillment aspects of her assassin training and god-granted powers, the book limits her abilities significantly, and has her questioning whether she even understands them. They’re more a character-development tool, driving her understanding of her own potential and what’s really going on in the world. While the “teen nun assassin” description suggests an over-the-top genre mash-up like Priest or Sucker Punch, Grave Mercy is more soft-edged historical fiction than a superhero book in fantasy drag.
One other cliché that seems to be becoming more common with YA books: From the outside, Grave Mercy looks like a hefty read. It’s 550 pages long. But large margins and wide spacing means it zips past like a much, much shorter novel.
Bad sign: The book launches with an attempted-rape scene, as Ismae’s father marries her off to a brute who immediately demands what he just paid for, and LaFevers gets readers on Ismae’s side by making her into a debased, degraded victim: “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.”
Good sign: Rather than dwelling on the experience, either in the moment or later, LaFevers uses it as a character motivator: “I think of my father and of Guillo. I think of all those in the village who worked so hard to make my life a misery. The young boys who threw stones at me, the old men who spat and stared at me with terror in their eyes, as if they expected me to snatch the souls from their old, wrinkled bodies. The younger men who fumbled clumsily at my skirts in dark corners, guessing correctly that my father cared not for my safety or reputation. It would be no hardship at all to kill the likes of them.” Then she rapidly moves on to a more adult version of Ismae, with a more mature worldview.
Young-adult appropriate? On the sex-and-violence front, Grave Mercy is pretty tame. Ismae kills people—that’s her job—but LaFevers doesn’t linger on the details, and there’s virtually none of the emotional impact of darker stories like The Hunger Games or Robert Cormier’s books, where death has weight and meaning, and killing requires serious thought before and after. And Ismae’s twitchiness about sexual matters keeps the book away from prurient details. The whole book is almost prim in its attitude toward potentially adult material.
Old-adult appropriate? Silly as the premise might sound, Grave Mercy is a fun, light read, a quick-moving adventure heavy on the intrigue. LaFevers has a knack for mystery, with plenty of overheard conversations, clues, and puzzle pieces to put together, and enough conflicting agendas to produce some tension. And Ismae is an appealing character, who falls somewhere halfway between Bella and Katniss on the determination and confidence scale: She’s entertainingly bloodthirsty, as killing people is really the only thing that she’s good at and that feeds her vacillating sense of worth, but she’s instead called upon to exercise patience and diplomacy. That contrast alone is worth the price of admission.
Could use less: Vague attempts at period speech. Apart from the occasional “naught” or “mayhap,” the prose and dialogue are comfortably contemporary, which makes the weird little dips into Ren-faire talk stand out as all the more awkward.
Could use more: Sense of the other eight “old gods” at work. Mortain is clearly an active, involved god in Brittany, with a stable of followers with magic-ish powers and a fearsome reputation. One other “old god” is mentioned as existing and having followers, but it’s unclear whether they have abilities or an agenda as well. Which unbalances the book and the world considerably, giving the impression that Ismae and her people have a god on their side and magic coming out of their ears, while everyone else has to muddle through life as boring normals.
For fans of: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, another fantasy about court intrigue in a small kingdom where godlike beings take an active hand in their worshipers’ lives, and one in particular marks the female protagonist as a favorite, meant for special work. Grave Mercy doesn’t have the Kushiel books’ erotica interludes, but it also doesn’t have their lacy, gushy purple prose. It’s like a training-wheels version of a similar story, one pared down to its simple essence.