Grave Mercy, the first volume in an exciting new trilogy for teens, is set in a 15th-century French convent where the nuns are trained killers for the god of death. There’s wealth beyond imagining, stark and stunning violence and a romance in the midst of it all. Make no mistake: This book is vividly imagined. So it’s surprising to hear how easily it might never have come to exist.
“I had always wanted to be a writer,” author Robin LaFevers says from her home in southern California. “Since I was a little kid that [desire] had always been there, but the well-meaning adults in my life tried to redirect me” away from work that had a high risk of rejection and no guarantee of financial security. LaFevers didn’t argue: “I listened to them.” But no clear career path emerged, so she held a handful of jobs, including work at a bank, a brokerage house and a stint as a truck driver for an energy company. As she describes it, “I really just drifted” for a number of years.
Her eventual success took root after the birth of her two sons. “I was a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “Books were our salvation. We would just read for hours.” LaFevers reconnected with her childhood love of books, especially the way books we love as kids continue to resonate as we grow up. Figuring it was safe to risk rejection, and seeking a diversion from 24/7 mom duties (“I really needed to save my sanity”), she decided to go for broke and begin what she calls an “eight-year apprenticeship,” leading to the publication of her first book, The Falconmaster, in 2003. Several books in, she landed a contract that enabled her to quit a part-time job and jump into writing full time.
"I'm so tired of the bad boy, semi-stalker love interest and lust at first sight. I wanted to show that real love opens the world up to you."
With one early exception, all of LaFevers’ work is historical fantasy, which mingles real facts and people with fictional and supernatural details. Her interest in the genre is grounded in how often these seemingly divergent areas overlap. “So many of the things we think of as fantasy elements, like wizards and alchemy, people actually believed as science at one point,” she says. “It makes me aware of how much we shape our reality. In 500 years, what are they going to be laughing about that we believed was real? That’s much more interesting to me than the events and places and dates of history—it’s how people moved in a world” built around beliefs much different than those of our present day.
In Grave Mercy, the worlds of history and fantasy come together when Ismae, newly escaped from a life of abuse and arranged marriage to a cretin, is taken in by the convent of St. Mortain. While you won’t find assassin nuns in any history book, Ismae’s job takes her to Brittany and Duchess Anne, who really did rule the region at the ripe old age of 12. That the characters in this story are teens is entirely faithful to the roles they occupied in society, “doing really big, important, cool things” as military and political leaders.
LaFevers recalls that those adult responsibilities aroused one editor’s suspicions. “My editor kept saying, ‘Really?! She just seems too old to be 12!’” while reading about the unusually sophisticated Anne. “I said, we can change [the character] but all people have to do is Google her to find out she really was 12, and she really was speaking and writing Greek and Latin at five and a half. She was raised to be a duchess from the moment she was born.” The author, who lives with her husband and a cat she describes as “demonic,” hopes readers will look up the historical characters in the book, but warns that Anne’s real-life story contains some spoilers as far as her future goes in the His Fair Assassin trilogy.
It’s not just the people but the setting for Grave Mercy that lends itself to historical fantasy. LaFevers has posted a photo on her website showing a medieval chapel in the Brittany region of France. “One of the starting points for me” in researching the books “was seeing this church built right next to these two pagan standing stones,” she says. In Grave Mercy those pagan ways include not just “herbwitch” as a job description, but souls rendered visible above the bodies of the dying and a pantheon of saints at the ready to intercede on behalf of virtually any cause. This, too, is true to Brittany as it was in the Middle Ages. “That duchy really clung to their old folk beliefs longer and harder” than many neighboring areas. Even today Brittany observes some holidays tied to pagan beliefs.
For the character Ismae, a world rich with spirits is the backdrop for a journey of personal discovery. Grave Mercy is ultimately “intended to be a story of coming into one’s own mental faculties and learning to think for yourself, make your own decisions, your own choices. It’s about seeing the world with your own eyes, not your parents’ or your convent’s eyes.”
That journey does include a romance between Ismae and Gavriel Duval, a Breton nobleman, but don’t expect this courtship to be business as usual. LaFevers says, “I’m so tired of the bad boy, semi-stalker love interest and lust at first sight [in young adult fiction]. I wanted to show that real love opens the world up to you. You don’t have to give up part of yourself, or be less than who you are, or need to be saved. Two strong people can meet and find common ground.”
The romance develops into a sexual relationship, which is ultimately why the novel is designated for readers 14 and older. However, there’s violence in the tale as well, particularly in the book’s first scenes, that some readers may find alarming. To keep the opening from being mired in gloom, Ismae is seen smiling even as she’s locked into a root cellar by her monstrous new husband, just to show that her spirit hasn’t been broken.
With Ismae, and characters who will take center stage in future volumes, some of the fascination is in what sees them through their difficult backgrounds. “Part of it’s about coping mechanisms,” LaFevers says. “We know people have these really dark [life] circumstances,” but the grim details may not be as useful as the ways people learn to navigate through them. “That’s what I’m trying to focus on.”