I had perfectly moderate hopes for Grave Mercy after having enjoyed Robin LaFever's MG book Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos but not really having any idea what to expect from her foray into YA.
Apparently what I should have expected was the answer to all of my bookish prayers, because that's exactly what I got! It was like Robin LaFevers looked directly into my heart and then wrote out the story of my dreams.
I have a fascination with assassins, probably because they both do what I will never experience (um, killing people) and they are experts at stealth and physical prowess (I'm about as stealthy as a puppy, which is, yeah, not very).
Ismae is totally badass when it comes to her assassin skills. She is a master at poisons and pretty handy with physical combat. Need someone killed? Ismae is your girl!
But when Ismae is assigned to play the part of a mistress in order to ferret out deadly court secrets, she's a total fish out of water.
I adored her! She's one of those MCs who is imperfect--she makes mistakes, she isn't always right, she puts her foot in her mouth when talking to the guy she likes, and I love her for her imperfections (probably because I share them). Her first person narration was especially wonderful in showing her embarrassment over her social flubs.
Ismae is also torn between following her heart and following the directives of her convent, and her conflicted feelings here really resonated with me. I felt for her, and even though I've never actually been in the position of to-kill-or-not-to-kill, I could still totally understand her struggle between pleasing others or pleasing herself. I loved seeing her grow into her own woman!
I'm super picky about romance, but Grave Mercy dished up my absolute favorite kind. The guy, Duval, isn't a weenie (auto-points for that!). To prove this, he totally held his own when he and Ismae were attacked (Hot guy with sword alert!!). And this is just one example among many other wonderfully manly actions.
Of course he's physically attractive, but I fell in love with him because he's also smart, strong, unwaveringly loyal, and the type of person who inspires that same loyalty in return.
He didn't exactly like or trust Ismae when they first met (hate turned love--more points!!), but he still treated her with respect because he's classy like that. Their romance evolved slowly across the book and never overwhelmed the plot. But did I get *that* kiss at the end?
OH YEAH, and a lot more than that! My favorite parts were actually the non-kissing parts when Duval visits Ismae's bedroom at night (no, not how you're thinking). Those scenes crackled with romantic tension.
This book is probably more like Poison Study where it is an adult/YA crossover instead of straight YA. Some of the themes and events may be a little mature for younger YA audiences.
The political intrigue is ramped up to 11 and with all the twists and turns, I rarely knew who to trust. So many people had motives, and many of them were engaged in smaller side schemes.
As the story came together I was able to deduce the ultimate bad guy before Ismae, which might have been a little frustrating but really didn't bug me in the face of all the other awesomeness.
I also wasn't overly bothered by discovering the who because the effects of their scheming were still engaging. Poor Anne (the duchess, Duval's half sister and the woman to whom Ismae's convent has sworn their loyalty) is put in truly awful situations and as the book progresses, Anne's position becomes increasingly perilous.
I adored Anne, so I had my book clutched in a white knuckled grip wondering how in the world Ismae and Duval were going to outsmart all of Anne's enemies and worrying that something truly awful was going to happen as the machinations of the court vipers slowly closed in around them.
The setting of Grave Mercy is medieval France from the perspective of Brittany (who, at this point has been taken over by France but is still trying to maneuver for independence).
I knew NOTHING about this time period. Literally, embarrassingly, nothing. Prior to reading this book I even thought Brittany was in a completely different part of Europe. See? Embarrassing, but true.
So given that, I have absolutely no clue about the level of historical accuracy or inaccuracy in Grave Mercy. I do now know (thanks to Wikipedia) that Anne was a real person and the broad stroke events surrounding her marriage situation and the plight of Brittany at the time are true. (Although I've since learned a lot more from this slightly spoilery author's note).
But did my lack of knowledge matter? Nope, not at all. Robin LaFevers constructed her story in such a way that I didn't need to have any prior historical understanding. To me, it felt like I was reading a well-developed fantasy world with a detailed cultural backdrop and loads of political intrigue.
The pacing isn't super fast, but it isn't slow either. It's what I'd call "slow-burn pacing." There was always something that held my interest and the secrets behind the political intrigue were unraveled at a pace somewhere between tantalizingly slow and satisfyingly fast.
Though, honestly, these characters could sit around watching grass grow and I would still be interested in reading about them.
Grave Mercy is the first book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy, but it reads like a standalone. The next book will take place in the same setting, but will focus on a different girl and the final book on a third girl.
I can't recommend Grave Mercy highly enough! I am so, so happy there will be more books in this fantastically wonderful new series.
A murdered prince, an assassin on the loose, a shady group of advisers, tensions between kingdoms? Yes, Allies and Assassins has all the making of a Small book for sure, and thankfully it lived up to almost every one of my hopes.
But I'm a character girl!
I say almost because the characters weren't quite real enough for me. I didn't dislike them, and I did actually like a lot of them, but none are particularly memorable or fleshed out beyond their surface roles. I'm intrigued by a bunch of them, but I never really felt like Justin Somper delved deep enough.
For a character reader like me, that was disappointing, but luckily everything else was so good this is only a minor complaint. Though, there is definitely a good foundation to dig in further and really develop them into fascinating characters. Since this is only part one of a series, I'm thinking this will likely happen across the story.
Trust no one
The mystery is what really hooked me and kept me reading. Information is doled out at a nice even pace, and combined with the shorter chapters I was able to fly through this big book pretty fast.
I had my suspicions early on as to who was behind the murder, and even though I was ultimately right, Justin Somper had me questioning everyone. There were several times where I was fully ready to believe the complete wrong person did it (and for the complete wrong reasons). There were also a few big surprises that I won't spoil now, but I will say my jaw very literally dropped after several totally unexpected twists.
That jacket hints at romance
Look, I'll be honest, I was hoping for a little romance between Jared and Asta. I mean, jacket blurbs can't just write "Asta and Jared take it upon themselves to hunt down his brother's assassin..." and NOT expect me to infer "and each clue they uncover propels them closer to THAT KISS." Am I right?
Apparently Justin Somper didn't get the slow burn romance memo. Asta and Jared are Just Friends.
Oh well. I'm sighing now, but by the end of this series I'm pretty positive I'm going to be clutching the books to my chest in happiness because, despite my frustration now, I think Justin Somper secretly DID get the memo and he's not going to spoil the series by doling out a premature THAT KISS.
And you know what? If that's what ends up happening, then that will be perfect.
This is what I was hoping The Goblin Emperor would be, so I'm happy to have found at least one book to fulfill my desire for a whodunnit within the palace walls kind of story.
Allies and Assassins was well on its way to reading perfectly fine as, if not a standalone (because, impending war. Yay!) then at least a series start that ends nicely and allows me to wait in peace until the next book is published.
And then those last five pages totally blew any chances I might have had of being able to calmly wait until the next book comes out—which, by the way, is when??? I don't even see a title on Goodreads. How am I supposed to deal if I can't even mark the next book as "Want to Read" on my Goodreads lists??
So, clearly, I'm invested in this series and highly recommend it to fans of court fantasy and intrigue. The cover (is awful, but has good "boy appeal") screams middle grade, but it has crossover appeal to older audiences for sure, and actually touches on some not-so-middle grade subjects (so caution for younger audiences there).
I thought I might appreciate Agnieszka more upon a reread, and that is exactly what happened. By the endReread: across most of 2016, finished 12/27/16
I thought I might appreciate Agnieszka more upon a reread, and that is exactly what happened. By the end of the book she is at peace with herself. The Dragon isn't at peace and he's too tightly wound and afraid to let himself be, but that's ok. Agnieszka can accept him for how he is, recognizing what he can and cannot give. She walks her own path. My appreciation for this book has only grown.
Originally read: 7/13/15 to 8/7/15
mmm near perfect. Going to have to think on this one for a little while. Full review to come.
Mmmm this book was a delight in storytelling. That said though, it has some rough spots for me.
Sadly, the characters are the biggest points off for me, and I live for characters. While I liked Agnieszka, there was a something about her that kept me from truly loving her. All the ingredients were there and her character journey is awesome. But. Something. I do think I'll like and appreciate her more on my second read (and, yes, there will be a second read, and a third, and a fourth, and so on).
The Dragon was a big disappointment. He's too jerky for me to get behind and not fleshed out enough for me to like him beyond his prickliness. I needed more depth from him, and I didn't get it. I was really looking forward to his character, so this was crushing.
While the romance did give me hate-turned-love, it failed to give me sparks, toe-curls, or heel-pops (see disappointing Dragon). I'm not convinced he's worthy of Agnieszka. Part of me thinks she would be better off on her own, while part of me is disappointed at that idea because then she wouldn't get a happily ever romance. But, I think my torn feelings all go back to the Dragon being an unworthy happily ever after. I don't feel satisfied.
Then there was the pacing, which, at times, did not make me happy and pulled me out of the story. I could have done without the slow start (almost DNF-ed because of it) and the jarring jump from the tower/wood setting to the court setting. This last wasn't a bad thing, but it was unexpected and I don't like that and the transition could have been smoother.
But, even with all that, this is a Special Shelf book.
It's the Wood. It all comes back to the Wood. This palpable, living, breathing character in its own right. This menacing, creeping, constant presence that made me feel equal parts dread and intrigue. Figuring out how it works, what it is, and why it does what it does. Visualizing its actions, magic, and attacks. This kept my eyes glued to the pages, wishing I would never run out. The Wood has all the depth, backstory, and nuance that the Dragon lacks.
Also, the magic. This ties in with the Wood, but it also stood separate and in both cases I was enthralled. I was entranced by the descriptions, but I also loved how character growth was intertwined with magical expression. Characters wield magic and are changed by magic, victims of magic and allowed to be their true selves through magic.
This was a book I could touch and feel and become so totally absorbed in that the real world disappeared around me. I've thought back on the story many times since finishing it and it still keeps pulling me back. This was an experience I'm glad I had.
Jessica Day George is rapidly becoming one of my new favorite authors. Her books are like cotton candy. They're light, sweet, and happy. There are antJessica Day George is rapidly becoming one of my new favorite authors. Her books are like cotton candy. They're light, sweet, and happy. There are antagonists and hurdles, but you know they'll be resolved and good will prevail in the end. Sometimes things work out a little too perfectly, but this comes across in a more cozy, heartwarming, makes-this-reader-happy way than in an annoying Mary Sue manner. When you just want to take a break from life and get lost in a "nice" book that'll make you smile, Jessica Day George delivers.
Creel is a thoroughly likable character, flawed yet endearing, capable and determined without being pushy or obnoxious. I really liked her and found her first-person narration a pleasure to read. I liked Creel so much that when the antagonists of the book were horrible to her I wanted to reach into the book and strangle them. Luckily Creel is awesome and didn't put up with their abuse.
One thing I wasn’t sure about at first was the embroidery scenes. I couldn’t imagine they would be very interesting, but I was so wrong. I absolutely loved reading about the different embroidery projects Creel was working on. I almost wish the book was illustrated, but Jessica Day George created such vivid descriptions that I could picture everything as if it were right in front of me.
The plot is engaging, with Creel's development as a dressmaker creating an easy going storyline that nicely compliments and frames the more dastardly political intrigue simmering beneath the surface. The mystery of the slippers is slowly unraveled and satisfyingly concluded.
I thought there was never a dull moment, with the plot moving along at a nice pace that isn’t too slow or too fast. There’s a little court intrigue, a little adventure, a little mystery, a little war, and some fun balls. There is also a touch of romance, but the plot focuses primarily on Creel’s adventures (though I wish there was just a teeny, tiny, little bit more romance. Just give me *that* kiss). I was so into the book and the characters that I even cried at one point! This is a Special Shelf book for me for sure.
This is the first book in a series of three, but it works just fine as a stand-alone story. The book is light enough for middle graders but fully developed enough for YAs to enjoy as well.