Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What Is My Fair Assassin So Afraid Of?

Grave Mercy
~Grave Mercy~
His Fair Assassin
Book 1

By Robin LaFevers
Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

Why be the sheep when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

When I got the e-mail from NetGalley offering a limited (2-day) offer for the ARC of Grave Mercy I jumped at the chance. The premise sounded interesting, and if not completely unique, then a welcome change from the majority of YA lit being released these days. I applied and was accepted within a day or two.

Upon discovering that the book was 500+ pages I'll admit I was pretty intimidated, especially since I was only two weeks away from the April 3rd release. Nevertheless, I promised myself I would try to get it read near the release date. I started reading on March 27th and my heart sunk. The narration was dry and choppy, details were minimal, and, most importantly, I couldn't find any personality in Ismae whatsoever. I couldn't believe I was dooming myself to read over 500 pages of this.

And then I hit Chapter 6—glorious Chapter 6—which takes place three years later. Now Ismae is seventeen and has had three years of training, friendship, and (most notably) learning to read and write. I absolutely loved the contrast of the two Ismaes and the ingenuity of the transition. Suddenly I couldn't wait to dig into the rest of the book.

Ismae turned out to be a fiery character. Determined to prove herself to her betters and Mortain, God of Death, she at first appears confident and cocky. But once she's out in the real world, her confidence takes a nose-dive and she's much less sure of anything, especially her own feelings. Normally a huge change in personality would throw up red flags—it's so rarely done well—but thankfully, this was one of the rare exceptions.

I think it's partly to do with the pacing of Ismae's story. Too often these days you have a character trying to go through their arc within two-or-three hundred pages. Honestly, that's not much room for change, so we're often given near-perfect characters becoming nearer-perfect characters. Grave Mercy has 549 pages to take us through Ismae's self-discovery, and it uses every single one of them.

But as much as I loved reading through Ismae's struggles and triumphs, I did think the 'overcoming her past' segments were covered extremely quickly. I would have liked to have seen more struggling with it besides when she was in her home village. The mother segment, especially, felt kinda out of the blue and rushed to me.

Nevertheless, I was hard-pressed to put this book down—in fact, I only did so twice. Between the assassinations, political intrigue, and romantic undertones, there was a lot to keep me interested. And that doesn't even cover the historical setting and information that kept being woven through. I've always been a bit of a history buff (even minored in college), so I savored each and every new tidbit I found—including the only swear word used in the whole book, Merde (pardon my French).

I was actually both impressed and horrified at a couple of the historical facts thrown in. Though ages aren't mentioned often, we eventually find out that Ismae is only fourteen in the opening chapters of the book. And the young girl who is trying to become the Duchess? she's only twelve. Twelve years old and trying to run a country, meanwhile those around her keep trying to marry her off to a forty- or fifty-year-old man. It's mind-boggling what was expected of women back then.

The fantasy of this book, even though it's a major plot point, is actually pretty subdued in comparison to the rich history. There aren't any spells or incantations, no witches brews or magic wands, and the closest things to magical creatures are the crows used as messenger birds. Pretty much, the only magic here is attributed to Mortain, God of Death, and it's pretty simple. He casts a marque upon someone—a black spot of sorts that shows how the victim will die— and his daughters follow his commands. Throughout the course of the book the mythos does evolve slightly, but on the whole I wouldn't worry about it if you're adverse to fantasy.

Similarly, I have a hard time calling this book a romance. Though Ismae eventually does fall in love, I found it to be more a part of her journey towards self-discovery—finding she's able and allowed to love—than an actual romantic plot. Conversely, there are many mentions of sex (Ismae masquerades as a mistress for much of the novel) and a couple allusions to rape but, keeping in the YA genre, there aren't any actions of either. Well...actually, there may have been one, but I honestly couldn't be sure.

After all this, I don't know if I've conveyed how much I loved this book. There's so much there that I don't know how to cover it all, nor do I really want to since it's just too good to spoil! I will say this about the ending: perfection. I'm excited to see what the next book, Dark Triumph, has in store for us, especially since it's about— Oop! Don't want to give too much away...

Overall I found Grave Mercy a refreshing and intriguing start to what I can only imagine will be a wonderful series. I'd recommend it for those who love Historical Fiction and YA, but don't mind a little Fantasy and Romance thrown into the mix. There is a fair amount of violence and many references to sex, so I'd place this as appropriate for late high-school and older, despite the young characters and inconsiderable language. Daunting as the length may be, Grave Mercy is one book you surely don't want to miss.

Approximate Reading Time: 6 Hours

Audiobook Review
Read by Erin Moon
Length: 14.3 Hours
Listened at 2.5x Speed

A couple things bothered me about this particular recording. Upon first reading the book a year ago, I was pleased at the historical tone of the writing, how characters and even the narrator were historically accurate in speaking without any contractions. This recording, however, throws in contractions at almost every single instance, shortening "will not" to "won't", "cannot" to "can't" and "that is" to "that's" regardless of who is speaking. Perhaps the director chose to shorten things to have it better 'fit in' with other YA novels, but I for one was disappointed that the historical nature of the writing was pushed aside.

Also, the recording suffered from very long pauses at every track break, which I noticed even upon listening at twice normal speed. The sample from the Audible page has a pause at exactly the same place, so I can only assume digital copies would possess these breaks as well. This is the first audiobook where I've had this issue, and as such I don't understand why the track breaks were added or not fixed. I don't think the issue is so bad as to ruin the entire production, but I do think it detracts from the immersion, having unscripted/unwritten pauses all over the place, sometimes even in the middle of paragraphs.

As with most audiobooks, I was thankful of the helpful pronunciations given, especially with the many, many French names, locations, and swears. I'll admit that the sudden French accents for these words was jarring at first, especially with completely American/English-sounding narration, but as the book wore on it was less of a jolt and more fluid.

Overall, this recording had its fair share of oddities, but on the whole I'd still have to recommend it for any fan of audiobooks. I don't know that the director's choices in transcription and pausing would win over new fans of the audio experience, but for those accustomed to the medium and interested in the story, I think it's worthwhile to give it a try.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.