His Fair Assassin Trilogy

Death wears many faces

Reading Order:

  • Grave Mercy, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 9780547628349
  • Dark Triumph, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2013, 9780547628387
  • Mortal Heart, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014, 9780547628400

Themes Explored: religion, paganism, feminism, self-defense, Christianity, faith, politics, history, mythology, folklore, romance, weaponry, death, redemption, truth, evil, brainwashing

Synopsis: His Fair Assassin takes place in 14th century Brittany. Anne of Brittany has taken the throne and must defend her country from the grasping French. When all hope seems lost, three assassins from the mysterious Convent of St. Mortain appear and change Brittany’s destiny forever.

Review: Grave Mercy explores the life and training of a group of teenage ninja warrior nuns. This book begins with seventeen year-old Ismae being beaten by her father, having her father force her into a marriage, and trying to avoid being raped by her brutish husband. Then it turns out that she is death’s daughter and is shipped off to the Convent of St. Mortain. The nuns then train her in the arts of assassination, intrigue, and seduction. After being deemed ready for battle, Ismae is shipped off to the Duchess’ court.

This was an interesting concept for a narrative, but the book annoyed me. First, Ismae shows no remorse for killing. Her lack of conscience is explained that the convent follows “the old ways” and killing honors the god of Death. But her lack of skepticism does not ring true. Second, the book begins with Ismae’s marriage. But Ismae never refers to this marriage again. I would think this would have come up at least once. Third, LaFevers struggles with showing instead of telling. Ismae is supposedly trained by the Convent, but we are never given any training sequences, she just appears and one chapter later is a master assassin. Fourth, the abbess gives her a special dagger capable of killing anyone just by touching skin. What is the point of all the training if this dagger is so powerful? Fifth, what really annoyed me was that all the villains are men. Ismae rescues the only woman she attempts to kill at the last second. So what is the message here, that only men are capable of being wicked and brutish?

Finally, Ismae’s romance with Gavriel is poorly developed. They progress from barely tolerating one another to being hopelessly in love. And how old is Gavriel? He is described as being a master diplomat and ambassador. Which makes me think that he is closer to thirty years of age. Considering that Ismae is only seventeen and spent her formative years cloistered in a convent, such an age gap is rather unbelievable. A thirty year old man is not going to pursue a naïve seventeen year old girl, even if she is an assassin. The narrative would have been better is LaFevers had focused on the political intrigue over Ismae’s inner turmoil.

Dark Triumph is the second installment and deals with Sybella. Briefly introduced in Grave Marcy, Sybella struggles with her personal demons and anger at the Convent. Sybella arrived at the Convent half-mad with despair and grief, the sisters’ were more than happy to take her in and mold her into an assassin.  Of course, the Abbess decides to send Sybella back into the arms of her abusive family in order to kill her father, Count d’Albret. Her father’s brutality almost causes her to tumble back into her half-crazed trance and her incestuous relationship with brother threatens to kill her humanity. But she finds an unexpected ally and decides to defy the destiny the convent set up for her.

Of the three books, this one was my favorite. Sybella is the only character who seems to be affected by her chosen profession. She is extremely conflicted and carries an enormous amount of emotional scars that impede her thinking sometimes. However, I have some problems with the narrative. First, Sybella’s relationship with the Beast of Waroch is quite boring. After spending several chapters bickering and clashing, Beast suddenly decides to love Sybella. For the rest of the book Beast is unwavering in his devotion. But LaFevers never tells us why this happens. And Sybella goes from complaining about Beast’s ugly countenance to finding him the most attractive man alive. Outside of a desperate need for acceptance, I do not see why Sybella loves Beast so fiercely.  Second, Sybella’s characterization fell rather flat. For most of the narrative, Sybella talks about her instability and worries about being evil. However, none of her actions justified these fears. After a while, her complaints and self-pity felt thin and overused. Third, the main climax of the novel revolves around trying to keep the French army from invading. But the French are only mentioned twice, there was no buildup. A majority of the historical setting was incredibly vague. The story could have taken place anywhere. Fourth, Dark Triumph did not delve into the political and court intrigue taking place in Brittany. I wanted to see more action from the characters introduced in Grave Mercy. Finally, Anne (the Duchess) is portrayed as a semi-divine character. I would have appreciated a more grounded depiction of Anne, especially since she is actually an intriguing historical figure.

Mortal Heart is the third and last book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy. This installment explores Annith’s story.  Throughout her short life, Annith has trained hard to become the top assassin at the convent. Her skills are unmatched. Yet, the Abbess refuses to grant Annith an assignment. Instead, she watches from the shadows as all her sisters go out to carry out death’s calling. Soon, Annith’s worse fears come to light when the Abbess confirms that Annith will become the new Seeress. Since Annith has no desire to spend her life trapped inside the Convent, she decides to run away.  Along the way, she discovers some hidden secrets about herself and the saint she serves.

I struggled to finish this book, Annith has the least compelling story out of the three heroines. Also, I guessed the twist about her and the abbess in the first book. So that revelation was less than surprising. My problem with the narrative revolves around Annith’s relationship with Balthazar. First, while Balthazar was a clever romantic hero, the romance did not work for me. We never really get to know him, he just appears whenever the narrative needs a push. Really, Annith will long for his presence and then he magically appears. I did not think they were an equal couple. Why do authors insist on pairing older men with teenage girls? I found the dynamic rather creepy, not romantic. Second, the historical context is ignored in order to focus on the mythology of the old ways. Which is fine, but this new focus really bogs down the narrative. The whole French invasion is treated as an annoying subplot and not much else. Third, the resolution to the whole invasion problem felt too contrived. I think the story would have been stronger if the King of Franc decided to call off the invasion due to principle, not some magic arrow. Finally, Annith really did not accomplish much in this story. She spends most of it complaining about being locked up in a convent. Then she shoots some people, has a showdown with the Abbess, sleeps with the personification of death, and then decides to return to the convent. Overall, the story just felt rushed.

While I appreciate the message behind this trilogy, give powerless girls recovering from abuse a way to defend themselves, I felt the execution of the books fell flat.  I did not agree with the fact that all the villains were men. This trilogy would have been stronger if the message did not boil down to: let’s give powerless girls weapons and send them off to kill men. Because only men are capable of being evil, women are merely misunderstood creatures.  Maybe it is just me, but I found this to rather tedious by the end of the first book. I could not help but draw parallels to Sarah J Maas’ Throne of Glass Series. I think Maas’ series is a much more balanced approach to the whole female assassin storyline.