Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review: Grave Mercy

Grave Mercy

by Robin LaFevers

Plot: Ismae Rienne still bears the scars of the poison her mother took in an attempt to abort her. Her survival from that, and the scars from the incident, prove that she was sired by the god of Death. At seventeen, when her abusive father sells her to an equally abusive husband, she is spirited away by secret followers of the old gods to the convent of St. Mortain, the god of Death. The convent takes her in, gives her a home, and trains her in all the skills necessary to serve St. Mortain, from poison and weapons training, to history and "feminine artistry."

The convent is loyal to Brittany, and to its young Duchess Anne, who is fighting to retain Brittany's independence from France. When word reaches the convent that there may be a traitor in Anne's court, Ismae is sent on a mission to Anne's court, disguised as the mistress to the nobleman Gavriel Duval. Her instructions are to search for information on the traitor, assassinate anyone marqued for death by St. Mortain (or that she is ordered to assassinate by the convent), and to watch Duval, who may be the traitor. But when her instructions come into conflict with her heart. Ismae must make some difficult decisions.

Notable Characters:
  • Ismae Rienne. Ismae is the kind of character I love. Equally adept with poisons and the crossbow, this girl can kick some serious butt. She's not so adept at playing Duval's mistress, however, having skipped many of the lessons in the feminine arts for more time in the poison room. Ismae is a well-rounded and fully developed character who has to make some difficult decisions as the book progresses. The convent took her in and essentially saved her life, and she is sworn to serve them, but her instincts increasingly come into conflict with her instructions from the convent, and she has to choose between honoring her commitment to the convent, and doing what she thinks is right. 
  • Sybella. Sybella is a novitiate who starts at the convent at the same time as Ismae. Sybella seems quite mad when she is brought to the convent, but Ismae befriends her and she eventually becomes one of the convent's strongest novitiates. We don't learn much about Sybella; there's hints of a tragic past, and she plays a key role in a few places later in the book, but she's an intriguing character. I was happy to learn that the second book in this series, Dark Triumph, tells Sybella's story, and I'm looking forward to reading it.
  • Annith. Annith is another novitiate who was already at the convent when Ismae joins. Annith and  Ismae become good friends, but there are hints that there are some weaknesses in Annith's character. Perhaps we'll learn more about Annith in the third book.
  • Gavriel Duval. Gavriel is a nobleman, although a bastard, and appears to be fiercely loyal to Duchess Anne. Initially he dislikes Ismae as much as she dislikes him, but it probably will not surprise anyone that eventually the sparks fly between these two.
  • Anne, Duchess of Brittany. Although very young at the time of this story, (13, I think?) Anne is already a determined young ruler playing the political game and dealing with issues that would intimidate even older and more experienced leaders, including the fact that her father promised her in marriage to half a dozen different European nobles and that, as a woman, she had no right to rule. Anne is a historical figure, and her life makes interesting reading (see the link above to the historical note on the author's website for starters).
Worldbuilding: Because Grave Mercy is set in a historical time and place, in many ways the worldbuilding is more about creating a sense of place and bringing to life 15th Century Brittany. This LaFevers does excellently.

Things I liked: 
  • See my discussion of Ismae's character above.
  • Lots of court intrigue! In fact, as complex as the intrigue is and as numerous the betrayals, LaFevers says in her historical note, "Suffice it to say there were about twice as many schemes going on in real life as I used in the book, including additional suitors, competing claims for the throne, and additional double crossing."
  • The romance is credible and manages to be both sweet and hot.
  • For a book about assassins serving the god of Death, surprisingly Grace Mercy doesn't glorify death. Ismae discovers that sometimes death can be a mercy, and that redemption is possible.
  • I can't think of any issues I had with this book, except perhaps that a few threads were left hanging, presumably for the sequels.
Who would like this book:
  • In many ways, Grave Mercy is historical fiction, and would appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction. However, the court intrigue gives it a fantasy feel, and with the addition of fantasy elements (primarily relating to the god of Death), it would also appeal to readers of traditional fantasy, especially those who like both strong female protagonists and a little romance.
Get it from:
FTC required disclosure: Review copy sent by the publisher for Cybils Awards judging. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Review: Throne of Glass

Throne of Glass

by Sarah J. Maas

Plot: 18-year old Celaena Sardothien was an assassin with a feared reputation, until she was sentenced to hard labor in the death camp of Endovier. After she has suffered a year of torture in Endovier, Crown Prince Dorian visits her in the prison to make an offer: fight in a competition his father is having to select the next King's Champion, and if she wins the competition, serve his father for four years in exchange for her freedom.

Notable Characters:
  • Celaena Sardothien aka Lillian Gordaina. Kick-butt heroine who also loves books and beautiful gowns.
  • Prince Dorian. Bookish crown prince with a good heart. Nothing like his evil father.
  • Captain Chaol Westfall. Strong but gruff Captain of the Guard. Charged with guarding Celaena.
  • Princess Nehemia Ytger. Princess of the subject nation of Eyllwe. Ostensibly visiting Adarlan to learn the language and ways of the country that conquered her own. Rumored to be working with the rebels.
Strengths and Issues:

This was a book that had a lot of potential, but unfortunately fell just short of the mark. The plot, the world, and the characters were all interesting, but not sufficiently developed to really work. In addition, I had some credibility issues.

Celaena is a strong female protagonist, and her character caught my attention from the first page. Ultimately, though, it left my expectations unfulfilled. She just didn't seem credible as a hardened assassin who spent a year in a death camp. Most of the time she just seemed like a regular teenager who happened to be good at fighting.  I would have expected her to be smarter, better at subterfuge, and more disciplined after the intense training that she supposedly was put through as a child being trained to be an assassin. She is put out at being asked to hide her real identity; she wants the recognition of being the famous Adarlan's Assassin. Yet I would have expected an assassin to want to remain anonymous. And while it might be understandable for someone just out of prison to indulge in sleeping late, indulging in fine meals, losing her temper and wishing she could go to the ball, I just expected to see more discipline and focus in her character.

All of the characters had promise, but ultimately seemed to be too much cobbled together from tropes to be real people. The book is written with a more omniscient point of view than one usually sees in young adult fiction. Although there's nothing wrong with that, I felt that it contributed to a feeling of detachment from the characters. Knowing exactly what the Prince and the Captain and the mean girl Lady Kaltain are thinking reduces the suspense in Celaena's interactions with them.

Likewise, the worldbuilding almost, but doesn't quite, hit the mark. There are some intriguing features to the world, such as a castle made of glass, and an ancient religion based on outlawed magic. However, none of it was very well developed or explained. Why would someone build a castle of glass, for example? What did the King do banish magic? (The why of that is sort of explained in the end.) The idea of magic banished by an evil king was much better developed and much more credible in Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier.

There's a lot of telling going on when there should be showing. The king is supposed to be evil, for example, and yet we really don't see much to make that credible, other than Celaena's experiences in prison, and one massacre that happens off-screen. We mostly have Celaena's internal description of him as evil to go on. Other elements are similarly described rather than shown.

The setup for the competition to select a King's Champion was interesting, but halfway through the book the plot suddenly takes a turn and becomes more about the evil in the castle, a plot thread that was hinted at in a few places earlier, but for the most part seems to come out of the blue. The two plots threads are tied in together, though, and the plot is one of the stronger elements of this book.

In general, Throne of Glass just seemed to have too much of a modern point of view to be credible as a court story. Reading romance novels before bed, playing pool with the hot guy Prince, and solving crimes CSI style just seemed out of place for a pseudo-medieval setting. All of the elements combined together give Throne of Glass more of a feeling of being a wish-fulfillment story than a fully fleshed out and developed one.

Who would like this book:

I think that this book is being marketed as YA, however, I think that it would actually have more appeal for preteen girls than for teens. Many teen readers I know are even more critical of the literary merits of a book than I am, and would probably be bothered by some of the issues above. However, I think that preteen readers, coming at it from a fresher, less jaded perspective, would better enjoy the good aspects of this book - the interesting plot, the strong female protagonist, and even the wish-fulfillment/Cinderella-esque elements - without noticing the problems.

Other Reviews

For a very different perspective on this book, check out the review by my fellow Cybils panelist Tanita Davis. I have a huge respect for Tanita, so it's worth paying attention to her take on this book.

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FTC required disclosure: Review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Awards judging. The bookstore links above are affiliate links, and I earn a very small percentage of any sales made through the links. Neither of these things influenced my review.