***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***
This is a fun book, a blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Make no mistake, though, the historical part is "history lite," and is mostly there to provide intrigue and interesting characters, but not to be slavishly faithful to the time period. It takes place when Anne of Brittany is trying to succeed her recently deceased father and become duchess, which squarely places it in 1488 or 1489.
The clever part of the book, however, is the magical part. Ismae is the daughter of a turnip farmer, but her biological dad is the god of Death, Mortain, who used to be a god in pagan times but has been co-opted by the Christian church and demoted to the status of saint. Mortain, and perhaps the other six gods, seem to be invented by Robin Lafevers, and good on her for that. Mortain is the best part of the book (and the passage where Ismae meets him in the flesh is the most lyrically written section, bringing tears). Ismae's mother seems to have tried to abort her with an herbwitch's brew and failed, leaving not just horrific scars on Ismae's back but also a mommy complex. Ismae's turnip-farmer dad thinks she's cursed and sells her off to a pig farmer, Guillo, who doesn't consummate the marriage when he sees her scars and knows her to be the daughter of Mortain. Before the disgusting groom can get his money back, however, Ismae is whisked off to a convent by the herbwitch and a priest, where she gets to choose between a quiet life with a good husband somewhere remote, or to become an assassin nun who kills men with her bare hands. Duh...she chooses assassin, thank you very much.
Flash forward three years later and Ismae is well trained in the arts of killing, mixing poisons, and supposedly seduction (except she missed a lot of those lectures), and awaiting her first assignment. Her friend Annith is waiting too, and the fiery Sybella has already been sent out to seduce and kill. The assassins get their orders from the "seer" nun and can also act on their own when they see the marque of death on their victim. After a couple of kills, Ismae is assigned to play the part of "cousin" (read: mistress) to the dead duke's bastard son, Gavriel Duval, in order to get her into court. That way Gavriel can try to control Ismae's impulse to kill all of his informants, and the convent will have its eyes on the court. Gavriel is trying by hook or by crook to get his half sister, the legitimate daughter of the duke, crowned as Duchess and married to someone who's sympathetic to keeping Brittany independent from France. But really, the politics are only there for one reason: to keep Ismae and Gavriel from completely trusting each other, and to keep them working together anyway to find the snitch-slash-murderer on the privy council who is trying to sabotage Anne, all while slowly developing respect and affection for each other. Gavriel is pretty darned swoony.
The sequel will actually be a companion novel, which is pleasing because it seems like it will be about Sybella and the coolest character in the book: a giant, ugly warrior with a heart of gold named the Beast.
So back to the "historical" in "historical fiction." The anachronisms are pretty glaring in this book. The language is almost present-day, with a "mayhap" thrown in for good measure to try to fool us. (Still, there are around a hundred instances of "perhaps"--a word that didn't exist until the 1520s.)
Whoa. Back up a second: what language would they be speaking in Brittany in 1488? The answer is probably Breton, a Celtic language brought from Great Britain in the early Middle Ages. Obviously the author can't use that. So her job is to choose a period in English and stick to it (unfortunately it often feels like she has chosen American English). At one point Gavriel says, "And therein lies the rub," which is modern corruption of Hamlet's "Ay, there's the rub"--except that Hamlet was written around 1603. Similarly, Ismae mentions passing something with "flying colors," which is an expression from 1706. Sentence constructions often feel very modern: "Besides, he isn't even looking at me." (The word "besides" begins 28 sentences in this book.) Sybella says "Scoot over" for Ismae to move over in bed--scoot is from 1758. (Annith also scoots over on a bench to make room.) The nuns are "heavy-handed"--this phrase, meant in the sense of "overbearing," is from 1883. The Reverend Mother says, "Quit intimidating my novice"--quit in the sense of "stop doing something" is from the 1640s.
I don't expect the language to be entirely within the period; I don't want perfection and I think the dialogue has to feel somewhat approachable. But I do want it to feel old enough that I don't question it. I want obvious idioms to be checked to make sure they're appropriately old and don't refer to plays that haven't been written by playwrights who haven't been born.
Another anachronism I couldn't get over was Ismae's mobility around the palace. Some lip service needed to be paid to the fact that she had no handmaidens to attend her when she arrived at Duval's home, or when she moved into Anne's palace. It would have been expected for her to have a companion, so someone needs to notice that she doesn't. At one point Duval tells her she can't wander around the court unattended and assigns her de Lornay, but it seems to be just an excuse to get those two ornery characters together for that particular scene, because the rest of the time Ismae wanders without any sort of chaperone at all, and no one calls her on it--even the men whose political machinations she's interrupting.
The book is too long at 549 pages, and I thought a lot of the wastefulness came from Ismae's internal thoughts. How many times must we hear that she has searched for the marque on the same person and found none? That she missed her lessons on seduction? That everything about Gavriel seems to be honest? And the plotting was done in such a way that it encouraged repetition: characters repeating information that we already know to the people around them. Meanwhile, I thought the large cast of characters could have used more fleshing out. Rieux, d'Albret, and even Crunard were all varying shades of "unsavory political opportunist," although d'Albret is slightly more hideous for nearly raping Anne in a hallway.
I did like the fact that Ismae was good at one thing (killing) and not so good at being feminine or worldly. She never really caught up with the manners of the court, which was believable--it was only her her natural goodness and questioning nature (even about the convent's fallibility) that Lafevers allowed the breathing room to grow and change through the adventure. Good job.