I read Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers a while ago, but then I moved and I started law school, and in the midst of all of the hoopla, I kind of forgot I read it. Then we finally stopped talking about rape and switched to homicide and suddenly I remembered that I never blogged about the assassin nuns, and I know that you want to hear about them. They’re assassin nuns. Who wouldn’t be interested? (Communists, obviously, but that’s beside the point.) I should probably warn you ahead of time that I downed half a bottle of red while watching a disc of Cougar Town (not just for baking), so this post might be all over the place. Just roll with it.
Ismae is just 17 when she escapes marriage to a disgusting pig farmer and goes to live in a convent dedicated to the god of death, St. Mortain. She’s naturally a little reluctant, but this is such a step up from her 20-minute abusive marriage that she dives right in. When you have nowhere else to go, training as an assassin starts to look pretty effing good. She discovers that she is 1) immune to, and 2) knacky with poisons, and suddenly she is ALL HANDMAIDEN OF DEATH ALL THE TIME. If she wasn’t already scarred by her mother’s failed abortion attempt, she’d have a MORTAIN4EVA tattoo. The only thing at the convent that doesn’t interest her are the classes about using your feminine wiles to entice your mark. Apparently being thrown in the root cellar by your new husband leaves a girl cold on the Y-chromosomed half of the population, and murder is more appealing than seduction. She much prefers to be brewing deadly concoctions with the Poisons Mistress, and she often skips Feminine Wiles lessons in favor of whipping up noxious substances. What? She is the only novice who is immune to poison and the Poison Mistress can’t be expected to whip everything up herself. Poison is an essential tool for the assassin on the go, and a girl needs choices.
After a few years of Deadly Assassin Convent School, Ismae feels ready to start taking folks out, and she is super gung-ho about it when she finally gets her chance. The abbess sends her out on a little mission, and she murders the mark without incident. Or so she thinks. When she gets back to the convent to bask in the glory of her first successful kill, she finds Gavriel Duval there, and he is cranky. It seems that Ismae has murdered someone that he needed to interrogate, and now that the dead guy has taken his secrets to the grave, Duval finds himself inconvenienced. He is NOT happy, and he says so in no uncertain terms, especially when he finds out that he’s going to be saddled with Ismae for the foreseeable future. She will be spying on the Breton court while masquerading as his girlfriend. There are political reasons. I won’t go into it. Duval is totally the Mr. Darcy of this book. 1) He’s not handsome, exactly. He has a quality. 2) He’s cranky, and his crankiness is directed at Ismae. He was already grouchy because of the whole dead informant fiasco, and now he has to pretend to have a mistress, which he knows no one will believe because apparently he’s known for his monkish lifestyle, but he’s backed into a corner and since he doesn’t have a better plan, he settles for being huffy. 3) His world revolves around his baby sister, who will be the Duchess as soon as someone can get her crowned. Pretty much everything he does is in an effort to get her married off to someone who isn’t terrifying but will also have enough political clout to keep Brittany from being overrun by their many enemies. It’s complicated, and frankly, politics do not an interesting blog post make, so I’m going to just skim over that. I can’t discuss politics and work in some of my newly acquired homicide knowledge, and I’ve decided in favor of homicide so that I can justify this as homework-adjacent. We’ll open up the comments to a discussion of actus reus and mens rea to make it relevant.
Ismae arrives at the Breton court where she is forced to wear plunging necklines (so much harder to hide your deadly assassin gear) and mingle with rich folks with ulterior motives (tricky for a peasant girl). She really starts to regret cutting all of the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous lessons in Feminine Wiles class. Duval is not excited about how her ignorance reflects on his choice of a mistress. He has enough problems without people judging him for slumming it with a peasant. His BFFs know the truth about Ismae’s profession, partly because Duval couldn’t think of a plausible way to tell them that he had acquired a mistress and partly because he doesn’t trust Ismae not to murder him in his sleep. Or while he’s awake with the tiny crossbow she keeps tucked up her sleeve.
Ismae finds a LOT of people at court that she’d like to off (those of us who have spent a week discussing murder might call this planning activity), but St. Mortain annoyingly won’t marque them for her, and she has to let them live. Otherwise it’s just plain old murder instead of a noble assassination in honor of her patron saint, and she’s not ready to cross that line. It really does show amazing restraint, though, because some of these people are seriously horrible human beings. The place is crawling with traitors, and one of the Duchess’s suitors is definitely the wife beating rapist type. Ismae looks REALLY HARD for the marque on him, but no dice. She even tries her clumsy seduction techniques on him in an effort to get him naked in case the marque is hidden somewhere, which is ridic since he’s been handsy and lewd since the moment they met. Fortunately for her Duval is smarter than she is about this brilliant plan, and he swoops in to her rescue before the situation gets out of hand. Sure, he has to keep up the facade of their hanky-pankying for the appearances’ sake, but this is a YA novel, so obviously he’s falling for her. And like most heroines, she goes through the whole, “Oh, what’s going on here? I’m supposed to be a deadly assassin devoted to my convent, and yet I find myself afflicted with BURNING LOINS. I’ve been down the marriage road before, and that was a bloody disaster, but I’M HAVING FEELINGS. What’s a girl to do?” There is the usual bandying about will they, won’t they, and, as expected, they will and they do.
Well, my wine is gone and Cougar Town is over, so I think we’re done here. There wasn’t much murder talk in this post after all, but what are you going to do? It was a token effort. Feel free to take up the topic in the comments if you’re so inclined. Princess out.