HMH Books for Young Readers
A strange birthmark spares Ismae from an arranged marriage with a cruel man, but thrusts her into the power of the sisters at the convent of St. Mortain. There, Ismae discovers she’s been gifted with great power. To understand her potential, she must embrace the training offered by the mysterious sisters. If Ismae agrees, they will teach her the arts of murder and seduction, so that she can be sent out into the world to bring the justice of an old god: Mortain, the god of death. When an opportunity arrives for Ismae to serve the young duchess of Brittany who faces an arranged marriage of her own, Ismae can’t help but accept, remembering her own past.
Determined to prove herself through this important assignment, Ismae soon finds herself overwhelmed by a court steeped in plots and betrayal. Unexpected feelings for her prime suspect complicate matters further. But more than Ismae’s devotion to her god is at stake. If she chooses the wrong allies, her mission will fail, and the young duchess will die.
I read this book without really knowing much about it. Marissa Meyer recommended it, and I love her books (Cinder, Scarlet and Cress) so I decided to give it a go. I spent most of the first part of the story waiting for the shoe to drop and for the god of Death to turn out to be evil, since that’s usually the way things seem to go. Instead, and I’ll try not to give too much away, Ismae learns that her understanding of the god’s will is not always perfect, but that he does indeed have a just plan for humanity.
The romance thread was nicely done. I found it refreshing that Gavriel was not the bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold type that’s so prevalent in current fiction, but that he was a gentleman who resents the implications about his relationship with Ismae and doesn’t take advantage of her or attempt to seduce her himself. That respect for her totally won me over.
Packed with intrigue, the plot really takes some big twists and turns. I love that it’s based on historical events. LaFevers definitely stirred my curiosity about Brittany and the young duchess and the real story of how the events unfolded.
Because I’ve read a little bit about the other books in the series now, I can see how this first story set the stage for the second and third ones. I’m curious enough about Sybella’s (one of Ismae’s fellow assassins-in-training) story to consider continuing the series, but it’s not sitting at the top of my list. I think I expected to like it as much as I loved Cinder, which admittedly isn’t fair to the author, and while I enjoyed it, I just have a hard time really getting into the whole “god of death as a good guy” type of story. It may be that the topic of corruption within the religious organization simply hits too close to home for me as I wrestle with some of my own issues about my own recent church experiences.
Mild profanity used infrequently.
Ismae’s new husband treats her roughly and makes it clear that their marriage bed will be one in which he treats her like an object. His behavior is ugly, but he’s stopped before having sex with her.
The servants of the convent of St. Mortain are taught all the ways of seduction, but readers are left to fill in the blanks on all that entails. Ismae’s past experience with men leaves her mistrustful and loathe to give herself to a man, even in service of her god. She makes a couple of brief suggestive comments. She lies naked against a man at one point, but not in the interest of having sex with him.
During the time period of the story, the Christian church had replaced many of the older traditions and belief systems in Brittany and referred to the old gods as saints. (There is apparently a lot of historical truth to this – I’ve not researched it myself, but you can read the author’s notes on the topic here.) Mortain, one of the old gods (a fictional one), still maintains a following largely through a convent of servants, trained as assassins and sent out to do his will, i.e., kill those the god has marked for death.
Ismae struggles with the morality of her tasks. What if someone has committed some wrong that earns Mortain’s judgement, but repents of the evil and finds a way to atone for it? Is there an alternate path for her to take rather than simply being an assassin? Ultimately she earns the god’s blessing for her mercy.
Several people fall victim to assassins, through means like poison, falling from a height, small arrows, etc. Brief battle scenes are described. Ismae walks through a field of dead soldiers looking for survivors. Descriptions are not overly detailed.
Characters drink alcohol – mead, wine, etc – at parties and taverns.