Wednesday, December 5, 2012

December Book Review Club

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@Barrie Summy

Hey, it's the festive holiday season! In the true spirit of the times, here's a nice fantasy about assassins. By January 2, we'll be right in the mood. 

Don't forget to click the icon for more reviews. And Happy Holidays! 

His Fair Assassins:
By Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012

A disclaimer: Robin LaFevers is a fellow Inkie (a member of The Enchanted Inkpot blog) and wrote a blurb for SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS. But if this book hadn’t wowed me, I wouldn’t have written about it. So there. Also, I bought the book with my own hard-earned cash.

Robin LaFevers is a sly boots.* In a setting where women were chiefly marriage chattel and needlework aficionados, it’s not easy to create a kick-butt heroine without violating the spirit of the age. So what LaFevers does is fill a medieval convent with the daughters of Mortain, the god of death styled “St. Mortain” as a political bow to Christianity. These young women are trained to do their father’s will—in other words, they’re assassins. Upon graduation, off they go into the world of needlework, armed with shivs, miniature crossbows, and a working knowledge of poison.

GRAVE MERCY is a total hoot. We get to sympathize with the assassins because they kill only those that bear Mortain’s “marque”—a shadow indicating how the target will die, and that he or she deserves to. (A marque around the lips, for example, indicates death by poison.) Late in the book, LaFevers adds a lovely new dimension when her protagonist, Ismae, invokes Death’s merciful aspect, releasing tormented souls from broken bodies.

Ismae leaves the convent to become embroiled in the politics of Brittany, whose young duchess is under pressure from neighboring states—chiefly France—who are salivating over her lands. Anne must make the right marriage to secure her duchy, but first she must stay alive. While she spends the requisite hours in her solar plying her needle, she is far from chattel. She’s a wonderful character: courageous, smart, and well educated, and in circumstances that have given her a modicum of control over her fate.

Anne’s court is a political snakepit, and that, too, is highly entertaining. Ismae is in the thick of it, ferreting out who can be trusted and who’s been bought. One of those whose loyalty she questions is the mysterious Gavriel Duval, Anne’s bastard half-brother who is high on the list of this book’s guilty pleasures. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

One of my recent sorrows has been the death of Diana Norman, the British historian and journalist who wrote the splendid Mistress of the Art of Death series under the pen name Ariana Franklin. She, like LaFevers, managed to adjust her heroine’s circumstances so that she was a free agent in a reasonably truthful medieval society. Norman’s Adelia has a worthy (and possibly more believable) successor in Ismae and her sisters. I’m insanely eager for April and the publication of DARK TRIUMPH, the next volume in the His Fair Assassin series.

*Technical term for us literati.