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A Review: Assassins and Feminists
Introduction. Warning: Spoilers
It had been a good few months since I'd read a young adult novel when I wandered into Barnes and Noble and picked up this book. First off, I love the dark themes that are beginning to crawl into Young Adult fiction--death, angels, demons, mercenaries-- these are what make me fall head over heels when looking for a good fantasy story.
So naturally, when I read the back of this book and saw Death, vengeance, and murder, I immediately pulled out my wallet.
I devoured the book in a little less than two days (lay off, I'm rusty) and was delighted with several aspects of the story, but it also left much to be desired.
The new niche that has been growing in YA fiction lately is a strong female protagonist. One of the best examples of this (though the books are not my favorite) is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series. More and more books with weapon-wielding, sassy female heroes are popping up, and Grave Mercy is no exception.
Ismae takes nothing from anyone--not even her scary, abusive father. I love how we're immediately introduced to Ismae's resilience and independence when she intentionally irks her father when faking happiness and dodges her would-be fiancé when he tries to hurt her. What I love most about Ismae is that she is not only a strong woman, but a woman with depth. She is strong but still fears the unknown. She is ashamed of her scars. She still gets nervous around attractive men, such as Gavriel.
What LaFevers does well here is that she avoids a cliché, all-powerful character that could have easily slipped into the context of the story, which many books nowadays suffer through. Instead she writes a believable, in-depth character the reader can believe in and root for.
As required, it seems, in YA novels, there is an epic romance between our main character and a man she immediately clashes with. His introduction was somewhat refreshing, as he's shown as not just another pretty face, but an intelligent one, as well. I immediately fell in love with him (though I'm always a sucker for fiery men with hearts of gold), but the one thing I wish was added is more mystery.
After his introduction, Gavriel is no more mysterious than what the protagonist believes him to be. Everything she hears of and from him points to him being reliable. There's no twist that reveals he isn't noble like he portrays himself to be, so the only reason she thinks he's mysterious is because she was told not to trust him. And that's kind of boring.
The lack of mystery somewhat takes away from the reader's potential love for the misunderstood Gavriel and takes away from what could have been an intense problem for the reader and Ismae. If he was truly mysterious, it would create more suspense for the reader, and lock them into turning the pages again and again to find out if the man is really trustworthy or not.
The romance is likable enough, but there could have been more of an internal struggle with Ismae coming to terms with the fact that she's in love. Instead, she's simply shocked stupid, and after their first and second kisses, her character becomes more a handmaiden to Gavriel, despite the strong feminist tones from the beginning. There may be some hint of satire that, under further analysis of the book, I might find that explains this, but this isn't commonly found in YA, so for now I'll safely say that it's simply my dissatisfaction at a potential feminist novel being thwarted by romance that makes me see it this way.
I love the idea of Death personified as a saint. I do, however, wish the story had gone further in depth with the mythology of Death and his children. A story that deals well with powerful beings and mortal children is Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series. These books revealed the children's feelings about their godly fathers and mothers. It would have been interesting to know the other convent assassin's feelings towards Death other than blind loyalty--if, perhaps, they felt abandoned as some half-bloods in Percy Jackson felt towards their godly parents.
The moment where Ismae meets her father, leading to her decision to follow him dutifully instead of the convent, is my favorite and most pivotal part of the novel in my eyes. That's all I can really say about it. It just made me really happy.
My main critique about this book has to be the episodic plot.
The first important decision Ismae makes is to join the convent. Obviously, this is what leads her to the plot of the story. But afterwards, and especially after she becomes romantic with Gavriel, she is more akin to a sheep following orders than a strong protagonist driving a story forward. Once they reach the Courts, Gavriel becomes the driving force of the plot, making the important, strategical decisions and speaking with key people. At this point, Ismae becomes a simple narrator, with the occasional insight into her curiosity and confusion at the events happening around her.
Her internal struggles and battle with the convent become more of a subplot.
Also, near the end, when she finds the cure to heal Gavriel, it's a little cliché that healing him comes through sexual intercourse. A theory of why this was the case, though, would be that it is symbolic of Ismae choosing compassion over revenge, and letting herself trust men, and choosing her father's wishes over the convent. Though, she makes these conscious decisions beforehand by ignoring the convent mother's demand at killing Gavriel's mother, and saving souls at the battlefield, and allowing Gavriel to kiss her--which would make this potential symbolism unnecessary. This all considered, I just have to settle with the theory that the author really wanted her main characters to bang.
Overall, Grave Mercy was a pleasant, quick read with a refreshingly tangled plot of assassination and saints. It's not a book I would typically choose as a "Top Teen Pick" at Barnes and Nobles, but it you like death and cute noble bastards, I highly recommend it.