Grave Mercy is an intriguing prospect. A historical fiction read for young adult reader, this offers a new context to indulge and escape into. Taking place in fifteenth century France, we follow Ismae who is taken to a nunnery after her failed sham wedding. However, all is not what it seems and the nunnery is in fact a web of assassins.
The plot in itself is promising; who doesn’t love a book about a bunch of deadly nuns with the power to murder in hundreds of different ways. Yet, like many books in the young adult genre, this book fails to move away from the stereotypes and generic bad representations of character, personalty and healthy relationships in order to conform to an assumed money making formulae.
Ismae was a terrible heroine. She was disgusted by anything remotely sexual, superficial or overt she literally cringed away from the thought. It was only when she felt desire herself she began to legitimise it by defining it as actual love as opposed to what it was; lust. Why are YA heroines always so afraid of sexuality? What is wrong with young women who are comfortable with sex and anything to do with it? Why must we show worthy characters as uncomfortable with sex? It is almost as if sex is something to be ashamed of and taking the historical context into consideration, I still find fault with this idea that sex makes you a slut and you can only be legitimised when you have a relationship that is validated by a controlling male.
Likewise, this book paints all me, literally ALL men as senseless sexual predators. I am fully aware of the way in which men and women both have sexual freedoms and acceptability, however none of the actions had any motive other than a way to move the plot forward. How do we make the reader sympathise with a character? Lets make a man leer over her for no reason. How do we write an antagonist? Let’s make him a predator but with no motive, no sense or any kind of reasoning. Literally men just grope female characters as a narrative technique. If it was correctly written, showing a range of different ways women were trapped into sexual violence it would be an excellent. But every time we need to feel sorry for a character, she gets cornered. Every time Ismae needs to be seen as active; she saves someone from being attacked, executed with wooden and cringe worthy dialogue.
Also, for someone who spent years training to be an assassin, Ismae’s skills are underwhelming. But that is of course natural as Gavriel, the love interest needs to save her to develop their romance. In typical YA fashion, Gavriel is the most honourable and morally grounded character, legitimising Ismae’s interest in him as acceptable because he is a good person. Both of these characters are perfect for each other. They both judge others and hold themselves to an unattainable standard of morality. It was disappointing that cliche slut shaming was used to create antagonism. Why can’t we insult a woman without having to drag her sexual history through the ground? In the case of Gavriel’s mother, who was a child when her apparent sexual infidelities took place, I found it particularity distasteful. They literally slut shamed a woman for what happened to her as a child.
Finally the voice that passive Ismae was given didn’t make any sense for the time period. The fact that important political figures listened to her advice and opinions contradict this powerlessness that the writer attempted to create for women in this book. It would have been more realistic if she was more of a wallflower, cleverly manipulating the situations to gain results because no one would listen to her. But I suppose that would have made her character interesting and complex and we couldn’t have that.