Gail Carriger Reviews His Fair Assassin series by Robin LaFevers (Grave Mercy & Dark Triumph) (Miss Carriger Recommends)

The series premise: three girls from difference backgrounds are deemed daughters of death and taken in to a mysterious convent where they are trained as assassins, called death’s handmaidens.  Each is then sent from the convent into the politics of late 1400s Brittany where they find self confidence through love, purpose, and place in society.

“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.”

~ Robin LaFevers, Grave Mercy

The writing: rich period color, first person perspective, strong voice, some graphic violence, modest sex scenes, excellent heroic counterparts, complex politics. Close accepting friendship between girls and women, betrayal by adult role models.

So confession time, I read the first two books in the LaFevers’s YA His Fair Assassin Trilogy: Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph some time ago. But I picked the first book as a reread for this month because the final one, Mortal Heart, is due out November 4, the same day as Waistcoats & Weaponry. I wanted to put these books forward before my book tour madness begins, and also to encourage you to invest in the whole trilogy at the right time to boost the author’s career.

Warning: these books contain triggers including rape and incest. If this kind of thing upsets you, I advise you NOT read along this time around. The Goodreads Fan Group is rereading my first two Finishing School books this month in preparation for W&W. Please feel free to do that instead.

Things I Wish I knew Before I Read Grave Mercy

All of the books in this trilogy follow trained female assassins during the time of Anne of Brittany in 1480s France. All the main characters are daughters of death, literally. They are taken from their homes to a convent and trained to be the best assassins in the world, known as Death’s Handmaidens.

Each book follows a different female assassin in medieval Brittany. I like this convention (one character per book, same world, same side characters). It’s a use-trope more common in romance than SFF. It allows the author to conceive of a full romantic story arc and deal with it in one volume but still revisit her world and utilize favorite characters. Some day I would like to write using this technique. Although they do stand alone, I think the second book is basically dependent on the first and it would be hard to read Dark Triumph without first having read Grave Mercy.

These books are not fantasy. Not really. Nor are they romance, not really. Nor are they historical. Nor do I personally think they are YA. In fact, they are super hard to categorize. (I wonder where RT stuck their review?) I thought from the cover art that they were going to be straight up fantasy with a romance thread. This meant that as I read the first book I kept getting thrown out of the story by the intimacy of the historical detail. In an odd way it was almost too historically accurate. However, once I accepted the alt-history part I filed Grave Mercy next to Mists of Avalon (in my brain) and stopped fretting.

The second book is a closer story, that is: less broadly political, so the detailed historical richness didn’t effect me as much. It wasn’t until the end of the second book in the author’s note that I realized these book are nested in actual real history. This is my fault, not the author’s. Or possibly the fault of the cover art, which is SO fantasy it really focused my expectations. Although, I do think they are great covers.

LaFevers does her research but isn’t heavy handed about it. The reader is settled into place/time without having it constantly thrown at her. The language style is almost modern, making it easy to read, but the location very much late 1400s Brittany. At least so far as I can tell ~ this is not my area of expertise. The only fantasy conceits are: the agency and strength of the main female characters (and the fact that men like them because of this), the existence of the assassin training school, and the actual presence of gods. There is no magic, per-say, and no other real supernatural forces at work here. Don’t get me wrong, I like this. In fact I pretty much like everything about these books.

Why did I pick Grave Mercy?

Since I am assuming, if you read this blog, that you like my books here’s the crossover connections.

If you read my stories for my: romance threads, side characters, snappy dialogue, historical setting, powerful female main characters with self agency and intelligence, than you will love these books. One of my absolute favorite features is that both books have women who are friends with one another, and formulate new friendships with other women throughout the books that are true, honest, and lasting. The main m/f relationship is definitely on the romantic end of the spectrum, but wonderfully so, but don’t expect and erotic sex scenes. LaFevers handles nookie even more genteelly than I do, but it works for the story and you definitely see the characters all the way to the bedroom (if not following them under the sheets).

If you read my books for my: constant humor, farce, ridiculous costumes, LBGT underpinnings, toying with class, and light-hearted text, than these books are not for you.

That said, I am eagerly awaiting the final volume in the series. I shall take it on tour with me. And I really am inspired by the idea of writing books each one a stand alone but all set together in the same universe and tied to one another. It’s a fun technique.

The Review: Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy is about Ismae, an abused peasant girl, for whom a convent is salvation and her devotion to her god, Death, a redemption and a means to self actualization. Her journey is one of faith ~ learning to define faith for herself, to find faith in others, and to have faith in her own abilities and in love.

“Even my own father has not recognized me.
Duval brings his horse closer to mine. “Someone you know?” he murmurs.
“He is no one,” I say, and for the first time I realize it is true.”

Ismae is sent into the high politics of the time to unearth betrayal, learning along the way what she must question and who she must become. She is learning about herself as she learns about her world, and what kind of place and path is open to her.

“Is that what my life has been? A series of trials to be passed?”
“You come to us well tempered, my child, and it is not in my nature to be sorry for it.
It is the well-tempered blade that is the strongest.”

Ismae is a gentle almost sweet character, a fish out of water in the best sense, despite her deadly abilities. The romance that develops between her and the man she is supposed to watch is part of her own journey learning to trust not just men but herself: in her heart, in her abilities, and in her judgement.

“And I would find a way to serve both my god and my heart. Surely He does not give us hearts so we may spend our lives ignoring them.”

I adored this book. So much so that I entirely forgave it some initial world building and historical exposition. This was front loaded, once through the beginning chapters (to Ismae’s first kill and the introduction of the hero) the pace picks up considerably. I wanted more of the assassin training, because I like the school aspect of most books (well, duh, I wrote a whole series about this) but I can understand why it wasn’t there (or was cut out). I enjoyed the journey and the characters (even though I didn’t personally relate to them) but I liked them both much more as they are set into motion, on the road and into the city and politics. I thought some of the romance was a little much ~ salvation through sex has never been a trope I latch on to myself. However, I wonder if LaFevers is playing parody with that trope in her connubial culmination, as Ismae literally saves Duval with her body.

“I am filled with a sense of peace. Yes, I think. Yes. This is what I want to be. An instrument of mercy, not vengeance.”

From a writer perspective I admired how LaFevers snuck in details and historical world building without being ham handed about it. She does so in description:

“She is a drab peahen of a woman with sharp, intelligent eyes, and I warm to her immediately.”

“I like that he does not apologize for his looks, that he throws them down like a gauntlet.”

Or in the middle of dialogue: 

“I take a pinch of salt from the saltcellar and sprinkle it on my venison.”

In fact, in general her powers of description rather amazed me. I mean just read this:

“Beast sends me a number of worried glances, small flickers of concern that prick against my skin.”

“Feeling restless and awkward, I pace as I nibble, unable to stand still. It is as if sometime during the night I have outgrown my own skin.”


Continue on with the series?

How could I not? In fact, I already did.


The Review: Dark Triumph

On the flip side from Ismae, Sybella’s journey is about closure. This second book Dark Triumph is a much tougher read, and darker than I normally prefer. Sybella, terribly abused and broken, is sent back from the only sanctuary she has ever known into the vipers nest that is the family that nearly destroyed her sanity. Unlike Ismae, she knows she can’t trust anyone, ever. Her journey is one of rising above this background and becoming the person she should have been all along, had she not suffered such an abusive childhood.

I tend to prefer my books on the lighter end of the spectrum, so I did find this one hard to read. However, once Sybella escapes (no spoiler there, you know it has to happen) and is out of the oppressive family fold and the romance thread begins, I liked her that much more because of her darkness. Sybella could have been a very unlikeable character, particularly as she is paired with one of the most likeable side characters from the previous book, but the romance and her personality evolution is handled deftly enough to make it plausible. My advice is just to read and don’t stop to think about what that kind of abuse would actually do to a girl. I should say it’s never graphic, which is how I came to stomach it.

I would understand, however, struggling with this book after the first. They are quite different characters and stories.

On to the Last Book?

Absolutely. I’ll be reading this while I travel in November (so long as I get it in time), since next month’s book group pick is my own book. (I certain don’t need to reread Waistcoats & Weaponry AGAIN!) Heh, it’s my book group, I can do that.


So, what’s next for the book group?

Waistcoats & Weaponry. It’s my book, so I won’t be reviewing it, of course (although I may give you some secret thoughts as to how I feel about it). But as soon as I get back from tour I will be around to (sort of) participate in the read along, in so far as you may ask me questions and tender comments and such.

Speaking of which, I’ve added a new element to the Monthly Chirrup which is sort of like a chatty retrospective on the previous month meets confessional. It’s a bit more intimate than here on the blog. Since my blog is public and my newsletter subscription-based, I feel like that forum is better suited to some of my more private thoughts. I guess what I am trying to say is that if you are here with voyeuristic intent, the Chirrup might be a bit more voyeuristic. Or something. Sigh.

Now you’re just embarrassing yourself, Gail.

{What is Gail’s Book Group reading for November? Waistcoats & Weaponry by Gail Carriger}


Your Moment of Parasol . . .

1906 salamandra75-tumblr 1906, Edwardian Fashion.

Your Infusion of Cute . . .

Contest entry from a while back: Trilby Hat

Your Tisane of Smart . . .
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Your Writerly Tinctures . . .  
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Book News:
Over at the Fiction University I blog about the difference I experienced writing and publishing YA versus adult novels.

Quote of the Day:
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~ Oscar Wilde

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