After the last few YA books I've read being at varying levels of "disappointing" in terms of writing quality, Grave Mercy was a pleasant surprise. Not just pleasant--excellent--I have nothing to complain about. I love everything about this book.
First, the subject matter: a convent that trains young women to carry out the will of Mortain, the god of death. A country on the brink of invasion, while also sorting through the political and social relations around crowning and finding a suitable match for their duchess. Deceit, betrayal, grief, fear, uncertainty. Loyalty.
Second, the characters: Ismae, our protagonist, who grew up hating men, and is all too willing to act as an assassin for the convent. Whose loyalty is never in question: she serves the duchess and she serves her father, Mortain, no matter who else should get in her way and alter her judgement. Annith and Sybella, both surrounded by mysteries which are never quite revealed (thought I can hope that they might be in later books). Duval, who grows in the reader's trust just as he grows in Ismae's, and never does anything to break that trust. Anne, the astonishingly mature and wise duchess for all of her twelve years (I definitely thought she was older, like Ismae's age at least, for most of the book). De Lornay and Beast, the loveable sidekicks. And then basically everyone else is somehow steeped in treason.
Third, the writing: brilliant. The style is very steady and consistent, making it easy to get lost in the world of the story. And LaFevers is an expert at manipulating the reader's emotions at every turn. I smiled, I gasped, I cried once, and I even laughed a few times. I was constantly questioning who could be trusted. And within the beautifully woven story, there are moments of absolutely stunning imagery, which serve to paint the scene perfectly into your mind. Unfortunately I don't have any examples to show you; similar to my experience with The Hunger Games, I found I was reluctant--at the very least--to leave the world even long enough to bookmark a place or jot down a quote. I found myself, more often than not, being several pages past one of those bookmarkable moments before the thought of bookmarking it even occurred to me. However, I am certain that this is a book I will read again, so I'm sure I'll find time to bookmark some quotes the second time through.
And! A mark of a truly good author (in my eyes): the level and development of the romance was perfect. If an author can make me actually like the romance aspects of a novel, they are automatically higher on my list. Ismae and Duval's relationship is slow and uncertain, and there is nothing shallow or annoying about any of it. I also like that Ismae spends a lot of time being in denial of her feelings, prioritizing her duty until she can be certain that her duty and her heart are on the same side.
One interesting thing about this book is that it is not very action-packed. It is very political and involves a lot of talking and planning and thinking, with little snippets of action and drama here and there. Because it isn't all action, certain events come as a huge shock; for example: the death of Nemours. The suddenness of it alone was enough to make me just as shocked as Ismae, let alone the fact that it killed the hope we had for Anne. There is more action at the end, naturally, but still not very much; Ismae is not present during the battle, so not very much of it is described.
But afterwards... and here comes the part that put me in tears: when Ismae uses her abilities to give De Lornay an honourable death, and goes around the battlefield releasing the souls of the dead and dying so that they may be at peace. I can't put my finger on what exactly it was about this scene, all I know is that it was very satisfying and that it made me cry. And then her encounter with Death Himself, when she learns that to carry out Mortain's work she needn't follow the instructions of the convent or anyone else, because as His daughter, every choice she makes is in His name and is guided by His mercy. And without it even being mentioned, the relief that flows through her at that revelation is tangible.
All of this is to say, please read this book, it's brilliant. And if you haven't read it yet... I'm sorry for the spoilers.
AND THE SECOND BOOK COMES THIS SPRING. I look forward to it. :)