I loved Grave Mercy so much that the two books I read immediately afterward - books I had been looking forward to reading for several months - seemed like shoddy imitations of books in comparison. I loved it for so many reasons: how big the story is, how fresh its ideas are, how well it's written. It's over 500 pages of story, and not once does it drag.
Ismae is a handmaiden of death. She was rescued from a terrible marriage at 14 and sent to a convent, where the nuns trained her to serve Mortain, the saint/god of death. What this means is that by age 17, Ismae is a well-trained assassin, and she's sent out on jobs to dispatch people that Mortain has marked with his inky black stain that only his handmaidens can see.
Ismae's latest assignment is at the court of Brittany, an independent province that is now a part of France. Grave Mercy takes place in the late 15th century, during a time when Brittany was struggling mightily to keep itself from being absorbed by France. (The existence of the present-day borders of France is a spoiler, but the book is suspenseful regardless.) Anne, the very young duchess of Brittany, is being torn in many directions. She's unmarried, and she's been promised in marriage to half a dozen - or more - people. Choosing one man over another, or not choosing anyone at all, will have dire consequences for Brittany.
Ismae's job is first and foremost to protect her duchess, and she is instructed to do so by determining who at court is betraying Anne - because all signs point to a traitor in Anne's midst. When she unveils the traitor, the convent will send her orders to kill him (or her). Ismae's cover is as a "cousin" (read: mistress) to Gavriel Duval, Anne's bastard half-brother and her closest adviser. Ismae has been told that it is likely he is the spy, so she is to work with him to keep Anne safe while also spying on him to determine if he is the traitor. I knew the romance was coming, but it was so good - swoony in the right parts, some nice repartee, and its development was timed well. When they finally do fall in love, it makes sense and is completely believable.
There's a lot of political intrigue that pulls in real historical events, which I enjoyed researching while I read the book. It's fairly complex, but it's not so complex that it's impossible to follow. I loved how big the story was, and I don't mean length-wise. So many things are going on, and they have huge ramifications for many, many people. It reminds me a lot of why I loved fantasy and historical fiction to begin with: huge stories with multiple intricate plotlines and profound consequences for entire countries or even entire worlds.
One of the things I appreciated most about Grave Mercy is that Ismae does kill. And she doesn't do it only in self-defense or after deep consideration of the target's crimes. She does it on order, without much regret or much thought as to whether the person deserves to die (at first, at least). I mention this because in a lot of fantasy or historical fiction novels, the authors find a way for their protagonists to not have to do the Bad or Unpleasant Thing that the plot indicates they really should have to do. (Prime example: In Wither, Rhine never consummates her marriage with Linden. Completely unbelievable, but not surprising.) This choice alone proves that LaFevers knows the world she has created and is unwilling to write herself loopholes to save the reader from some unpleasantness. I have a lot of respect for YA authors who do this. It's much too rare.
Hype isn't always a good indicator of a novel's worth, but in this case, it's well-deserved. If you're a fan of complex, involving stories that take the time to develop complicated characters and important details, this book is for you. Anyone who likes historical fiction will eat it up, as will fantasy fans and romance fans. There's a sequel in the works that focuses on Sybella, one of Ismae's fellow trainees at the convent, and I can hardly wait for it.