First impressions: YOU GUYS. LADY NUN ASSASSINS. Enough said.
Lasting impressions:Â Ismae may be one of my favorite heroines of all time. She’s up there with Claire Randall, vying for the top spot. She’s smart, humble, kind, merciful, and oh yeah – a stealthy handmaiden of death.
Conflicting impressions:Â While the convent was a large focus of the first part of this book, the ending didn’t tie up many loose ends in that regard. I have a feeling much of this information will become the focus in later books, but I felt a little jilted in this book when it came to Sybella and some of the other sisters.
Overall impressions:Â It’s a historical novel with courtly intrigue and a protagonist who is a kick-ass murderer. But a niceÂ kick-ass murderer. I would have bet anyone a million dollars that I would love this book.
Guess what? I win!
The premise of this book could never hold the weight of its own ambition without a heroine that makes the reader care about her. From the very first page, Ismae stole my heart. Trapped under an abusive father, marked by Death himself to be an outcast, and thrust into a marriage with a disgusting pig of a man, I couldn’t help but want something more for her. When she is offered a home and a purpose for her miserable life at St. Mortain’s convent, Ismae can finally start to believe in herself.Â
The bulk of the novel focuses on one of Ismae’s first major assignments. She is assigned to play mistress to Lord Duval and accompany him to the Breton court to ferret out traitors that need assassinating. There is a delectable romance that builds between the two unlikely lovebirds, and I appreciated that LaFevers devoted more time to personality based obstacles than class driven ones. Yes he’s a Lord and one of the most influential men at court, and she’s just the lowly peasant girl, but that never seems to be the focus for why these two shouldn’t fall in love.
Perhaps why I loved Ismae so much was precisely because LaFevers made her more complicated than the usual historical trope. Despite her training and occupation, Ismae is an Everywoman. She’s unsure of herself and makes mistakes. She follows at times she should be leading. She trusts when she shouldn’t. Yet we don’t fault her for any of it. We understand why she makes the decisions she does, and it makes her all the more believable and compelling.Â
Do I think this story needed to meander through nearly 600 pages? No. There were moments where the pacing lagged and Ismae got a bit repetitive with her musings. At its core, however, this novel has a pure soul that guides us carefully through morally complicated situations that at times benefited from a lengthier examination. As Ismae determines her true calling as Death’s handmaiden, the book culminates in one of the most spiritually enlightened moments I’ve ever experienced in fiction.Â
The vast depth to this book offers pure pleasure to the reader. If you’re willing to invest the time, it will heap its rewards upon you. There’s a reason for the hype, and this one definitely lives up to it.
Rating: 5/5 stars
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