by R.A. LaFevers
Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.
Ismae's most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
Ismae has lived a life of being beaten and abused at the hands of men and boys. When she is sold to the pig farmer as a wife, she has hopes for better treatment, but as soon as the wedding is over, she realizes her life will be no different has she is backhanded and lands on the floor. But when her chemise is torn and her husband sees the scar on her from where her mother tried to get rid of her before she was born, he sends for the priest, the real one that worships Jesus Christ, not the one that married them and worshipped the old saints, the old gods. She is rescued from him and handed over to the abbey. From death to death's handmaiden.
Ismae is a quick learner in the art of killing men. She probably takes great pleasure in thinking of killing them as much as she has suffered from them. But she isn't the kind of character you pity. Ismae doesn't feel sorry for herself so it's hard to feel sorry for her yourself as the reader. She is one cold calculated killer. She relishes working with the poison master, learning all the ways to murder with poison. She's adept with all kinds of knives, swords and crossbows. She does not know of love. She has two true friends in the abbey, Sybella and Annith.
Ismae is thrilled on her first two assignments, I think just for the thrill of killing men. Feeling the power over them, taking back her power that she didn't have for so long. Now, I'm not suggesting she's a serial killer. She prays for their souls and looks for a marque on them before she dares to kill them, but instead of remorse, she is giddy after her first kill.
The convent is basically producing assassins. And they don't want their assassins to take things into their own hands or think for themselves. They want robots that blindly follow the orders of the abbey. That's a problem for Ismae and that's one reason why I start to love Ismae. One of them. She's a complete mess when it comes to using her feminine wiles. She has none. She's been too busy working on learning the art of killing to work on what the convent calls "feminine artistry." So, when she has to be presented at court for her latest and longest assignment, it's a difficult job. She has to play mistress to a man she's not even sure she can trust. So what's the bottom line? What is all this killing and these assignments what's the goal? To ensure the safety of Anne the Duchess of Brittany who is besieged by France and spies and traitors all over the place. She is being forced to marry at 14 and to rule Brittany and she hardly knows who to trust. You can imagine that our dear Ismae connects with her. At any cost, to herself or anyone else, even the convent, Ismae will protect Anne. And right there, the big sister to Anne thing, seals my love for Ismae.
This is a long novel, but it absolutely flew by for me with the personal relationship between Anne and Ismae, and Ismae and Gavriel Duval, Anne's half brother and the man to whom Ismae is pretending to be mistress. Then there is all the court intrigue. And who Anne will be forced to marry. And Sybella is she there and that Governess. I was so wrapped up in the story I forgot it wasn't really happening. I cried several times at the last part of the story, so get your kleenex. I am not a crier. It must have been one hell of a story to write because it's one hell of a story to read. Ismae grows from that scared little "yes" girl that was "saved" by the convent to a young woman who questions right and wrong and light and dark. She does her duty, but not without regret and does not take it lightly. She is a strong woman in a time when women weren't strong. She's a great character and now, one of my favorites in YA.
There is a lovable and detestable crowd of secondary characters and you will get attached to some. There is a love story, but it's not the focus of the story. It plays a big part, but in keeping with the 1400's it is fairly chaste. I thought Ismae's constant questioning of herself and Gavriel's motives was humorous. She was always second guessing Gavriel because of her feminine wiles problem. Oh and there is also some mythology. I saw some definite similarities between St. Mortain and Hades and St. Camulos the "God" of battle with some of the Greek Gods.
A little romance, a girl with the skills of an assassin, political intrigue, court shenanigans it all adds up to an incredible book! I couldn't put it down. Less than two days! But you have to like books like this to like it. No sense reading a historical if you don't like them. There is a lot about war, and strategy, so if that bores you, this isn't for you. But this was MY THING!
Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers for making this available on NetGalley! This didn't influence my opinion of the novel in any way.