Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others. Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?
So yeah, I loved this book from the very beginning. It’s written beautifully, not really stylistically, but with a nice formal feel. It reminded me a little of the way Jacqueline Carey writes the Kushiel series. It’s just so dark and gothy, and I love Ismae’s name. I mean, these women are like angels of death. How could I not love that? I am also a sucker for “your organization is lying to you” type plots, so when Gavriel Duval shows up, causing Ismae to question not only her organization, but her feelings about men in general…well, there was no going back for me. Something else of note: in the beginning we also meet Sybella, and when she disappeared after a chapter, I found myself wanting more from her as well as Ismae. Something I wondered as I was reading the beginning was, how can this girl, who flinches at every sound, every touch, possibly be considered ready for an assignment of this magnitude? I mean, I know it’s a novel and we wouldn’t have a story otherwise, but I thought it was a huge oversight on the abbess’ part. I was also slightly annoyed by the old “I don’t understand my body” trope, where the protag doesn’t get why her stomach feels funny whenever they see their romantic interest. Come on!
Duval brings up all kinds of good points. How does Ismae know the convent follows the word of Mortain and not their own interests? I started to suspect that Duval had a marque, just because he was so interested in them. And when we haven’t heard from Sybella since that early chapter, I decided I had a theory. The convent plans for treason and uses hurt orphaned girls to get it. Since we know Ismae will eventually be tasked with killing Duval, I don’t think that’s too far-fetched, especially considering what we learn around him in the beginning. When Ismae is faced with an accusation of treason against Duval, from one of his enemies no less, I was disappointed that she bought it so fast. Duval has a clearly antagonistic relationship with his mother, he is very clearly devoted to the Duchess, and there’s been literally no indication that he’s a traitor. Luckily, Ismae is not a moron, and confronts Duval as soon as she can. So I’m not tempted to spoil, let me just say that the twelve-year-old Duchess is amazing and hardcore and at the same time a sympathetic character. I liked her and her sick sister, Isabeau, a lot.
We do finally see Sybella again, but I want to save everything else for you to read! The plot really starts moving quickly around the three-quarter mark, and then we learn who Ismae is destined to kill. Things are so intense and I just felt for Ismae and Anne and Isabeau so much, but they didn’t need it. They were all so strong, and even though this one had its flaws, I think they were perfect. This book is so lushly written, and I usually hate stuff like that, but this one just worked for me. Maybe the gothy elements helped, since I was a bit gothy myself in high school, but I also think it was the story. I thought it was a strong one, with a few weak points, but I was so engrossed that I’m willing to overlook any weaknesses. I think this one is great, and it’s only my second five-star book of the year! If you like dark alt-historical fiction (the paranormal is so slight as to almost not exist), this one is definitely for you.
P.S. The next book is about Sybella! My face will be all 🙂 all day now!