Historical Fantasy on the YA Shelf: Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin

I first learned about Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin shortly before the publication of the first novel in the series, Grave Mercy, in the spring of 2012. As a fan of both fantasy and medieval history, I was intrigued by the idea of a convent of mystical assassins in 15th-century Brittany, young women trained since early childhood as killers in service to a pagan god of death camouflaged as a Catholic saint. As curious as I was, though, I didn’t get around to reading it then… which, it turns out, would help me appreciate the scope of LaFevers’ trilogy by experiencing it all at once.

When the final book in the trilogy, Mortal Heart, was published in late 2014, I resolved to take on the books. The first thing I realized, very soon into Grave Mercy, is that although the series has been presented to American audiences as young adult fiction—and is an absolutely solid success on that level—it might just as easily have been framed as an “adult” fantasy trilogy that just happens to feature teenaged protagonists. (See, for example, Alison Goodman’s Eon and Eona, which were sold as adult fantasy in every English-language market outside North America.) From one book to the next, from one protagonist to the next, LaFevers makes the stakes increasingly complex on the grand level, and increasingly intimate on the character level, balancing the two masterfully.

While Ismae, the heroine of Grave Mercy, does have a turbulent family backstory, it essentially remains backstory as she is sent from the convent of “Saint Mortain,” one of the Nine Old Golds of Brittany, and plunged into the real-life political intrigues in the court of Anne, the country’s young duchess. (Although, as LaFevers concedes in author’s notes, the historical timeline is increasingly compressed for dramatic effect as the series progresses.) The next novel, Dark Triumph, begins at a climactic moment in its predecessor’s narrative, seen now from the perspective of Ismae’s friend and co-assassin, Sybella. Sybella has also been called upon to defend the duchess, but in doing so she’s forced to return to a family she’s already managed to escape once. I wouldn’t say that her family drama is necessarily darker than Ismae’s, only that she—and we as readers—are forced to confront it more directly, and for a greater duration. That trend continues in Mortal Heart, where Annith, who has sat on the sidelines in frustration during the first two novels, defies the orders of the convent’s abbess and inserts herself into the political conflict… a move that brings secrets even she didn’t know about her personal history to the foreground.

Reading the three novels in close sequence, I also noticed how precisely LaFevers managed the fantastic aspects of the story. It is possible, in fact, to read Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph as relatively straightforward historical fiction with ambiguously uncanny elements—aspects of the story that might have supernatural dimensions, and are certainly treated by the characters as having such dimensions, but which could also be misunderstood. That hypothesis falls apart in Mortal Heart, but in a way that actually served (for me, anyway) to make the supernatural dimensions feel slightly more naturalistic, complementing the psychological and emotional realism LaFevers had established up to that point.

Here’s where I should point out that each novel in the trilogy is also a well-crafted romance, taking into account that the three female protagonists are in their late teens, but also that late adolescence in 15th-century Europe was very little like contemporary late adolescence (so much so that even calling it “late adolescence” may be misleading). Whether it’s Ismae’s developing attraction to Duval, who may be the duchess’s fiercest ally or her worst betrayer, or Sybella’s reluctant relationship with Duval’s fellow soldier “Beast,” or Annith’s… actually, I’ll let you discover that one for yourself. The key point is that LaFevers works through the intricate dance of attraction and hesitation with a finesse many adult historical romance authors might envy. If Ismae, Sybella, and Annith weren’t 17-year-old girls, and if there were a demonstrable market for medieval paranormal romance, His Fair Assassin would definitely be set up to lead that market.

(Actually, I don’t know for certain that there isn’t such a market. If you know of other novels in that vein I should be reading, tell me!)

Though His Fair Assassin doesn’t have quite the epic scope of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice, or the richly detailed characterization that epic scope allows, I would still recommend these three novels to his fans as heartily as I would to young adult fantasy readers.

(NOTE: This post originally appeared on Beacon.)

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5 January 2015 | read this |