In 1485 Brittany, seventeen-year-old Ismae is rescued from an arranged marriage to a brutish pig farmer by a hedge witch who recognizes Ismae for who she is: a daughter of Mortain, god of Death. She is bundled off to the convent of St. Mortain, where is she trained by killer nuns to become a first rate assassin who specializes in poisons. She swears utter obedience to the convent and it’s hard core Mother Superior in exchange for a new life free from the demands of men. Once her education is complete, her first assignment is to pose as the mistress of a high-ranking advisor named Duval in the court of Brittany’s young duchess Anne, whose rule is being challenged by many powerful enemies. The convent is closely aligned to the duchess; her fate may well become theirs. So Ismae’s job is two-fold: to report to the Mother Superior everything she observes at court that may threaten the duchess, but also to spy on Duval, who the Mother suspects may be a traitor. This is all fine by Ismae, who’s been chomping at the bit to get out into the field and murder some deserving villain. But before long she is caught up in complicated court politics and suddenly things don’t seem quite so black and white. She finds herself questioning the Mother Superior’s directions and forming dangerous opinions of her own. But worst of all? She thinks she might be falling for the very man she has been assigned to spy on. When the dreaded order to murder someone close to her comes by crow from the convent, Ismae has a terrible choice to make: maintain her allegiance to the organization that saved her life, or throw away the only security she has ever known to follow her treacherous heart. This epic supernatural hist. fic. went on a touch too long for me as an adult reader, but I suspect the voluminous length will be no problem for you teen folk, who seem to never want a good book to end. And make no mistake, this is a very good book, full of backstabbing politics, duplicitous double crosses and back-room-deals gone bad. I liked it best when Ismae was efficiently going about her killing business. The assassination scenes are so riveting and suspenseful, you’ll find yourself guiltily paging ahead to the next murder. I found the poison bits especially intriguing, and was fascinated when Ismae was cataloging her toxic library of potions and filing away how each poison worked and what awful symptoms the victim could expect to suffer. And tucked between the swoony romance and stone cold killings, there’s also meaty themes about gender and class in the Middle Ages, and the very limited ways women were allowed to function in society. Even the royal duchess Anne who Ismae is fighting to protect has no real authority but is just a pawn being pulled back and forth between groups of powerful men who don’t care about her but only want what she represents. If historical fiction has been your poison in the past, then I highly recommend this terrific tome as the antidote.
Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers