At some point or another, I promised to tell you my opinion of Grave Mercy, a YA book by Robin LaFevers that is apparently the first of a trilogy, and came out way back in 2012. More specifically, you gave said book to your cousins, ages 10 and 12, and were maybe having some second thoughts about the appropriateness of said book for that age.
You did mention that you gave this book to said cousins without the jacket, as free books in all sorts of conditions are everywhere at our work, all the time. Without the jacket, you had no real idea of the contents, given the lack of a summary on the inside flap and the lack of a sexy girl holding a crossbow on the front.
So, first things first: is this a good book for kids that young? I have no goddamned idea. Kids are basically an unfathomable mystery to me, which is probably why I never took up babysitting. The book does include two scenes of the attempted rape of a minor (like, I think both characters are in the general age range of twelve, ish?), so I suppose that’s not ideal? Well, they’ve already read it, so what’s done is done.
The basic premise of Grave Mercy is this: Ismae, a peasant girl of Brittany, is a daughter of Mortain, Mortain being the Breton pagan god of death turned Christian saint of death. After being sold into an arranged marriage, and after an attempted rape by said husband, she is spirited away to the convent of said Saint Mortain to become one of an elite order of assassin nuns. Along the way, she teams up with Love Interest and becomes embroiled in the court conspiracy to keep Brittany free of France, and the duchess of Brittany not married to a psycho, etc. She and Love Interest have a snippy sort of relationship, with lots of Ismae telling the reader that she is TOTES NOT INTO HIM, and the reader seeing through Ismae’s blatant-ass lies.
I have to admit that I did not exactly enter into the book in all the best of good faith. I am not really one for that highly skilled super cool assassin! trope that fantasy is often so fond of, at least not unless the author is willing to present it in all of it’s underpaid, undignified, breathlessly immoral glory, and guess what– Robin LaFevers is not so inclined.
My skepticism was compounded by the following exchange:
Mother Superior: “…We carry out His will. Do you understand?”
Ismae: “Is that not murder?”
MS: “No. You would not expect a queen to wash her own clothes or lace her own gown; she has her handmaidens for that. And so it is with us; we serve as handmaidens to Death. When we are guided by His will, killing is a sacrament.”
This is some Welcome To Night Vale mind- bending shit, right here:
Q: What do you call it when you garrote someone to death (that Mortain told you to kill)?
A: Definitely not murder!
What about personhood and any rights to life therein? What worth the individual? What about due process of law? What about the human fallibility of Mortain’s agent? What about the cost of murder to the human soul? What about the loved ones and dependants of the to-be-deceased? What if Mortain tells you to murder an innocent and you have no idea why? What if Mortain, or his ‘handmaidens’ can be tricked? … are some questions that Ismae doesn’t ask.
This is further complicated by the fact that [spoilers!] almost all of Ismae’s kills fall into rather morally ambiguous categories. She kills a man who is in the process of attempting to redeem himself, therefore robbing him of said redemption; she kills another man who has been blackmailed into his bad behavior by other bad men who are holding his wife and children hostage, with no thoughts whatsoever as to what might become of that wife and those children after she kills him; and so on.
To the credit of the novel, these questions of morality are not left unaddressed, and as things progress, it turns out that maybe who Mortain does and does not want killed is somewhat more complicated than first appears. To Ismae’s discredit, but for a bit of troubled rumination that she killed someone who was in the process of attempting to redeem himself, she never seems to even consider the magnitude of taking the life of another human being— innocent or guilty. All around, Ismae’s capacity for guilt, as shown to the reader, is not at all impressive. Apparently, once some deity or another gives you the go ahead, it’s murder time, and no need for second thoughts. Which, by the way, is a deeply terrifying prospect.
I have to comment, as something of an aside, that I find it exceedingly strange that in my review of a novel, I have to take the time to say, no, guys, killing is wrong, and should at least be taken seriously! Whether this is a flaw in the novel or a flaw in Ismae’s moral character (or lack thereof) is, I think, entirely up to the reader, and I’m not quite sure where I fall.
So: while I was not fond of the treatment of the assassin issue, the author’s willingness to at least dip a toe or two into the mud of moral ambiguity generally mollified me. Furthermore, even though I would not be chomping at the bit to befriend Ismae, were she real, the likability or lack thereof, and the morality or lack thereof of a character is immaterial to the quality of the novel.
Unfortunately, this book also contained a far thornier issue: slut-shaming.
I have a sneaking suspicion that much of Grave Mercy’s treatment of certain gendered issues may not be at all outside of the norm for YA, or even historical fantasy, which is depressing to say the least. If there’s one thing Ismae hates, it’s… traitors of Brittany. But if there’s a second thing, it’s harlots! And being thought of as a harlot! Because, as a fucking murderer, she’s in a position to judge the sex lives of other humans unto her heart’s content. Yes, Ismae, who, I reiterate, has killed people, has no end of disapproval for those sluts who have sex outside of holy matrimony… Except for when she does it. With Love Interest. Because she’s in lurve. And, also, because she’s saving his life with her poison-sucking magic vagina, and, uh, yeah, maybe this wasn’t such a great book for kids? Maybe this isn’t hypocrisy on her part, and maybe she just believes that sex should be about love, and not for fun or money. But maybe, no one asked you, Ismae, mind your own goddamned business. Do what you want with your own magical naughty bits, and don’t tell people what to do with theirs (besides, you know, safe, consensual, etc.)
Incidentally, Isame usually indulges in her snippy slut-shaming when dressed as either a harlot or a slut (harlot is very much the word used in the novel, when it’s not straight-the-fuck-up ‘whore’), so as to get close to her marks (read: her fellow human beings, whom she is about to fucking murder). A rather considerable amount of words on the page are devoted to telling us, from Ismae’s first person POV, just what those slutty clothes and courtly dresses look like, and how good she looks in them, matched only by the amount of words on the page devoted to telling us how much Ismae detests wearing these clothes. Which, I felt, was something of an example of the author having her cake and eating it too. What is basically being communicated here is that our protagonist is both super hot/ beautiful, and, also, not a vain shallow airhead who cares about such things.
A side note to any impressionable, sweet young things who ever come across this blog post: it ain’t gonna work like that in real life, kiddos. Precious few of us receive the genetic hand of cards that afford us beauty without any sort of work going into that beauty. On the off-chance that it does work out that way for you, the rest of us humans who have plucked, tanned, shaved, waxed, painted, curled, straightened, scrubbed, shopped, dieted, dyed, blow-dryed, and bleached our way to almost-acceptable-to-be-seen-in-public are not going to be eager to listen to certain opinions you might possess on the perceived character of those who care about their appearance. Some food for thought.
Now, interestingly, Ismae does get called out on her shitty opinions, sort of. See, it turns out that Love Interest is the bastard son of the dead duke, via a mother that is known, to Ismae, chiefly by her charming sobriquet, the French Whore (not okay). Ismae’s belief that people who are sexually deviant in any discernible way are also bad people generally holds up throughout the book (another note for the impressionable sweet young things– it’s not going to work like this, either), and the Madame Hivern (I refuse to call her the French Whore, as she is usually called in the book) is not much of an exception when it turns out (le gasp) that she is conspiring to place one of her illegitimate children on the… throne? What’s it called when it’s a dukedom? Whatever.
Ismae is assigned to kill Madame H, because Mortain don’t abide by no traitors, and Ismae is unusually hesitant to do so, because killing Madame H means, in all likelihood, making Love Interest a great deal less fond of her. But she perseveres anyway, and (spoilers) poisons Madame H, which leads to a certain confrontation, in which Ismae informs Madame H that she totally had options! Other than becoming a whore! And having illegitimate children! And conspiring to depose the legitimate sister of said children!
Whereupon Madame H points out that options are sort of in short supply when the French King decides to rape you when you’re fourteen and you’re stuck in a society that has no decent place for sluts or bastards. Which, no shit Sherlock, Ismae. Until Madame H’s speech, Ismae does not apply enough brain cells to the question of where harlots come from to realize that those women she disdains so much were likely choosing the least worst option out of all the bad options presented to them, if they were presented with any options at all.
I appreciated Madame H’s speech of pointing out the obvious to our young knight templar of a protagonist, but it was too little too late for me to really be satisfied.
While it might be pointed out that any slut shaming is strictly historically accurate, let me also point out that the premise is assassin nuns!, so. None of this is to say that Grave Mercy is a bad book. It’s not. It’s a perfectly mediocre YA book that happened to touch on a few of my pet peeves. What worries me is that I don’t think it’s that unusual of a YA book. It seems to me that there are some recurring themes in YA, of protagonists who feel almost no compulsions about killing, as long as the people killed can be framed, in the broadest of terms as ‘bad’, and protagonists who have certain opinions about sex and the people who do it.
But perhaps that’s another discussion for another time.