Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Summary: Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

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?

Commentary: I was pretty excited to read Grave Mercy–assassin nuns in medieval France? Definitely not something that’s been done before. I was drawn in from the very first chapter, but then my interest sort of petered off, and I’m not exactly sure what went wrong.

While the premise of the novel was certainly interesting, I felt like the author didn’t deliver. I had a hard time connecting emotionally with our narrator, Ismae, whether because of the awkward and kind of stumbling narration, or because she was just kind of flat as a character. We see that she escapes from her horrible arranged marriage, but her transformation to a full-formed character never happens. I wasn’t able to relate to any of her emotions and was never fully pulled into her trials and travails,which means the romance also fell completely flat for me.

I did enjoy the historical aspect of this novel, however, and appreciated the political intrigue between Brittany and France.

Overall, Grave Mercy had a very interesting premise but failed to deliver fully. Really fabulous cover though, I have to say.

Grave Mercy is the first in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be following up with the rest of the novels.

Author Website: http://www.robinlafevers.com/
How did I get this book? The public library!

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Blood Red Horse by K. M. Grant

Blood Red Horse is the first novel in the DeGranville Trilogy by author K.M. Grant

Two Boys. One girl. The adventure of a lifetime.

You need three things to become a brave and noble knight:

A warhorse.
A fair maiden.
A just cause.

Will has a horse—a small chestnut stallion with a white blaze in his brow. Ellie is a fair maiden, but she’s supposed to marry Will’s older brother, Gavin. And as for the cause, King Richard is calling for a Crusade. The Knights of England must go to the Holy Land to fight. Will and Gavin will go. Blood will be shed. Lives will be taken. But through it all, two things will be constant—Ellie, and a blood-red horse called Hosanna. . . .

I think I saw this book several times on library bookshelves and in the hands of my friends when I was younger, but I never picked it up. I definitely would have enjoyed it a lot as a kid.

Blood Red Horse is definitely an adventure story. Will and his older brother Gaven join the Crusades with King Richard and travel from their home in England all the way to the Holy Land and Jerusalem. They are plagued by horrible storms on their sea journey across the Mediterranean, and once they arrive at the Holy Land, things only get harder. Will is kept confident at least, by his red horse Hosanna, a brilliant and brave partner.

Unmentioned in the synopsis is the character of Kamil, a Muslim boy whose family was killed by Crusaders when he was younger. Essentially adopted by the great Saladin, leader of the Saracens, Kamil harbors a deep rage and need for vengeance against the Christians on Crusade. I thought it was great that the author presented both sides of this conflict, instead of making it an oversimplified Good Guy vs. Bad Guy story.

While Ellie actually is mentioned in the summary, her role in the book is less than satisfactory. I suppose it was realistic for her time, but most of her story involves Ellie being left behind at home and fending off unwanted marriage proposals.

Good adventure book.

How did I get this novel? My local public library
Genres: Young Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction
Author Website: http://www.degranville.com/

The Education of Bet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

After my fairly lackluster experience with Crazy Beautiful, I wasn’t too hopeful about starting The Education of Bet, another novel by the same author.

I’m glad to say that The Education of Bet went above and beyond my expectations. I might even venture to say that the writing style and quality of the novel made me double check a few times to make sure that yes, it is the same person who wrote Crazy Beautiful. I love it when books and authors exceed my expectations.

In Victorian England, Bet (short for Elizabeth) lives with the wealthy Paul Gardener, for whom her mother worked for as a maid until her untimely death. Bet is raised alongside Mr. Gardener’s newphew and heir, Will Gardener, who is privileged as any wealthy English boy can be privileged–by being able to obtain a formal education at boarding school.

Unfortunately Will is the worst sort of student. He has been kicked out of 4 different schools for various reasons (lying, cheating… setting the headmaster’s house on fire) and all he truly wants, he tells Bet, is to join the military and be a soldier. All Bet has ever wanted is to go to school and learn, something not generally accorded to girls in her time period.

So the scheming duo devise a plan to disguise Bet as a boy, and send her to the Betterman Academy to take Will’s place (essentially impersonating him), while the real Will heads off to join the military. What could possibly go wrong?

The Education of Bet was ten times better than Baratz-Logsted’s first YA effort, Crazy Beautiful. Bet’s voice was real, funny, and I very much enjoyed reading about her escapades in her quest to be educated. Thrust into the world of adolescent boys, Bet soon finds out that school is not the Paradise of Learning she had envisioned before–instead, she must contend with bullies, strange smells, a gloomy dormitory, and her roommate (the odd and very good-looking James). Just keeping her real gender a secret from James is an adventure in and of itself, since they live, sleep, and change clothes (!!!) in the same room.

I really enjoyed this book. Bet herself is a great narrator, and Baratz-Logsted hit all the best parts of a “girl-disguised-as-a-boy” story without being too cliche about it. I also enjoyed the romance that developed, and I think if this novel were billed as a movie, it would definitely be described as a romantic comedy.

Light, humorous, entertaining read.

How did I get this novel? My local public library
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance, Comedy, Young Adult Fiction
Author Website: http://www.laurenbaratzlogsted.com/

Mara, Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw

Egypt is weakening. Queen Hatshepshut, the Imposter Pharoah, is spending Egypt’s gold without reserve, building costly temples and great memorials to herself. The army is underfunded and foreign kings are poised to strike at the defenseless kingdom on the Nile. Many think that Hatshepsut has overstepped her bounds in her power as regent for her younger brother Thutmose II, and there are rebel factions intent on overthrowing her in order to save Egypt. However, this simmering revolution has a difficult obstacle in the face of Hatshepsut’s network of spies and supporters intent on keeping her on the throne.

Mara has been a slave all her life, but yearns for freedom and a life without backbreaking chores and the harsh whip of her master’s displeasure. Then all of a sudden, within the space of a day, Mara is recruited by two different masters, each a spy supporting a different side in the unseen war for Egypt’s throne. She becomes a double agent, determined to look out for her own interests and come up the winner no matter what. However, things soon become convoluted, and it becomes exceedingly difficult to play this web of lies and stay alive at the same time. Everything is further complicated by a growing attraction to Lord Sheftu, one of her masters, an attraction that gets in the way of her previous resolution to focus on only saving her own skin.  Mara soon holds the future of Egypt in her hands, a future that is looking more and more dangerous by the day…

Every summer I kind of fall back into this predilection for re-reading old childhood favorites that I suddenly remember and feel a desperate need to revisit. I think I first read Mara, Daughter of the Nile when I was in elementary school, and it was a great, exciting adventure. I also thought it was really romantic!

This time around, I was still impressed by how cleverly McGraw plotted Mara’s story and the political intrigue between Hatshepsut and her brother Thutmose as well as their various supporters and spies. Daughter of the Nile was published in 1953 and is labeled as Children’s Historical Fiction–this novel has more intrigue and clever twists than a lot of “adult literature” that I’ve read. And people keep underestimating children/young adults’ literature… or just underestimating children/young adults in general. Smart kids want to read smart things. Anyway, that was really off topic.

McGraw has a smart, enjoyable heroine in Mara, and everything proceeded at the right pace. I’m not sure how accurate the history was. I think for the purposes of the story McGraw painted Hatshepsut as an evil, shallow, egotistical monarch. However, Wikipedia tells us that “Hatshepsut’s reign was long and prosperous. She was successful in warfare early in her reign, but generally is considered to be a pharaoh who inaugurated a long peaceful era. She re-established trading relationships lost during a foreign occupation and brought great wealth to Egypt.”

How did I get this book? From my local public library
Genre: Historical Fiction, Young Adult Fiction

Genghis: Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden

COVER genghis bones of the hills by conn igguldenRating: 7 out of 10
Summary: The Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, stalked by enemies seen and unseen and plagued by a divided family, leads a sprawling force of horsemen beyond the realm of their known world. He will bring a storm to Arab lands and face the armies of the shah in all their strength.

From the fierce cold plains of Mongolia to the Korean Peninsula, Genghis’s brothers, sons, and commanders have made emperors bow, slaughtering vast armies of fighting men. But as Genghis enters a strange new land of towering mountains and arid desert, he stirs an enemy greater than any he has met before. Under his command, Shah Ala-ud-Din Mohammed has thousands of fierce Arab warriors, teeming cavalry, and terrifying armored elephants. When Genghis strikes, the Arabs prove their mettle. On the verge of defeat, Genghis is forced to leave his own vast encampment, and the women and children in it, in the path of an enraged, savage enemy.

While the Mongols—men, women, and children—fight back, as secret assassins are sent into the night, another battle is taking shape. Two of Genghis’s sons, Jochi and Chagatai, are steeped in enmity. Warriors choose between them, and a murderer commits an unspeakable crime. Soon the most powerful man in the world, who has brought devastation to this land, must choose a successor. And when he does, it will touch off the most bitter conflict of all.

In a novel that ranges from the fertile lands of the Chin to the dust and rock of Afghanistan, Conn Iggulden weaves the epic story of history’s most enigmatic conqueror —those who feared him, those who defied him, and those whose bones he left behind.

My Thoughts: This is the third book in the Genghis series by Conn Iggulden. My reviews of the first and the second novels.

Bones of the Hills, the third (and last novel) about Genghis Khan by Iggulden, was great–lots of action, lots of political, military, and strategic plotting, as well as more focus on Genghis’ family especially his sons and the problem of an heir.

The main focus and conflict is Genghis’ rage and revenge against the Shah, who has an empire covering what is modern-day Afghanistan, bits of Iran too I think. It begins when the Great Khan sends ambadassadors and men to the Arab city of Otrar, demanding tribute and submission. The governor of Otrar repeatedly rebuffs Genghis by killing these “diplomats” (actually spies) and makes basically the “worst military decision in history” (I quote Iggulden) by offending Genghis, and the Mongol ruler sweeps down with his entire nation and sets fire and destruction and Doomsday on the Shah’s lands.

I was unaware of the fact that the Mongol Empire was so large (larger than the Roman Empire and Muslim Caliphate, or “largest continuous empire”), stretching from present-day Korea in the east all the way to the Caspian Sea in the west, touching Russia in the North and parts of South-East Asia and India. Seems like Iggulden made an effort to keep pretty factual with the events and plotting, and I enjoyed learning so much about Mongol history.

As this is the last novel about Genghis, it includes his death and plants the seed for a new series Iggulden will write about his descendents, most notably his grandson, Kublai Khan. I will definitely be following that series, and will also try Iggulden’s other books about Julius Caesar.

Great ending to a decently entertaining series.