on November 4, 2014
Pages: 444 pages
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In the powerful conclusion to Robin LaFever’s New York Times bestselling His Fair Assassins trilogy, Annith has watched her gifted sisters at the convent come and go, carrying out their dark dealings in the name of St. Mortain, patiently awaiting her own turn to serve Death. But her worst fears are realized when she discovers she is being groomed by the abbess as a Seeress, to be forever sequestered in the rock and stone womb of the convent. Feeling sorely betrayed, Annith decides to strike out on her own.She has spent her whole life training to be an assassin. Just because the convent has changed its mind, doesn’t mean she has.
Assassin nuns! Who doesn’t love assassin nuns?
(All of the people who get assassinated by them, probably.)
If you aren’t a threat to 15th-century Brittany, though, you’re probably safe. That said, if you haven’t read any of the books in the His Fair Assassin Trilogy by Robin LaFevers, GO READ THEM NOW. That is an order. The second book, Dark Triumph, is one of the best books I’ve read in the past year, and I think the series as a whole is pretty awesomesauce.
The premise is as follows: the books follow the adventures (murder adventures) of three initiates – Ismae, Sybella, and Annith – of the Convent of Saint Mortain, the god of Death. All of the convent’s novitiates are also supposed to be the daughters of Mortain and have the creepy birth stories to prove it (with the exception of Annith whose birth is mysterious and unknown). They have all been trained by the convent to be efficient and effective assassins and are told, when it happens, that their murder missions are divinely sanctioned by Mortain. (But are they?!) Both Ismae and Sybella, for example, are able to see marks on their victims that, at least at first, suggest to them that Mortain wants their victim dead, and the deaths are foretold by the convent’s seeress. In the first two books, whether the assassins’ missions are divinely sanctioned or not is very much thrown into question. Both Ismae and Sybella suspect that the convent’s abbess is manipulating them for her own political gain. At the end of each book, both women meet with Mortain, who reaffirms their commitment to his mercy and justice, respectively, and each develops as significant political actors in her own right.
If you are into seriously badass heroines, I cannot recommend these books highly enough.
Annith, the protagonist of Mortal Heart, is no exception. Annith is super badass. In fact, she is the most badass novitiate the convent has ever seen; while she lacks some of the other girls’ natural skills (Ismae is adept at detecting / being immune to / also absorbing poison like a boss), she has made up for that lack of talent in sheer effort. She’s a skilled archer, a good rider, and adept at hand-to-hand combat. She has been at the convent since she was a baby and has thus been ready to begin assassining for God and country FOR YEARS. YEARS! And yet, all of her sisters are sent out before her – Ismae, Sybella, and more untrained novitiates – and she cannot understand why. At the opening of Mortal Heart, she learns why: the abbess intends for Annith to become her new seeress.
Annith has been dutiful and obedient her whole life, but she cannot resign herself to this fate. She’s never been outside the convent’s walls and has trained to do Mortain’s work for her entire life. As seeress, she’d remain there forever. And she’s seventeen and a trained killer. To her credit, there’s more to her actions than selfishness; she wants to leave the convent, but she also suspects (as Ismae and Sybella have already learned independently) that the abbess is deploying untrained novitiates on missions of her own making – not Mortain’s. Annith is legitimately worried for her sisters, whom, she fears, are being sent to meet their deaths.
I loved Annith’s development as a character and in some ways found her the most relatable of LaFevers’s heroines. She’s seventeen, she’s tired of being locked up and governed by rules she doesn’t quiiiiite understand, and she has real faith that she is meant to do more in Mortain’s service. (Maybe.) She wants the opportunity to choose her own choices. It’s a character arc that feels very familiar to me, and one really well suited to a young adult novel.
The novel follows Annith’s adventures as she sneakily escapes the convent and plans to confront the abbess. Along the way, she runs into a band of hellequin, who are tasked with bringing the souls of the dead home as atonement for their own crimes; the followers of another goddess, Arduinna; and the royal court (where Ismae and Sybella also conveniently end up, oh hey). I loved seeing more of the world LaFevers has created through Annith’s eyes. Annith’s travels give us a different sort of access to the world of the novels than we’ve had with either Ismae or Sybella, and it’s incredibly fascinating. (We finally get to meet the followers of a different god! We’re able to develop a better understanding of the religious and political climate of the novel! In meeting the followers of Arduinna, there’s also a fascinating discussion of the importance of storytelling to religious experience, both individually and communally. SO COOL, you all.)
Here’s what I didn’t like: while I love the romances in the previous two books, Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph, I felt the romance in Mortal Heart was underdeveloped and, if I think about it too hard, kind of unsettling. While LaFevers is a master of the slow-burn romance (seriously, her ability to develop romantic tension between two characters is on point), this was the first book in which I wished there hadn’t been a romance at all. Blasphemy! The previous two novels balance the romance with the political plot excellently – I cared about the fate of the relationship and the fate of the country equally. Here, though, I felt like the relationship wasn’t as well developed. While Annith meets the hellequin leader, Balthazar, while she’s on the run, she’s not in his company for most of the novel, and while they’re together, there’s tension, but really not enough explanation (for me) of what undergirds their relationship. Balthazar is dark and mysterious and in pain, but beyond that, he isn’t super fleshed out. There is a reason for that and it is super spoilery, so proceed with caution.
View Spoiler »
BALTHAZAR IS MORTAIN!!!
If you’re thinking, oh wait, I thought Annith was Mortain’s daughter, well, you’d be wrong. But also right? The novel reveals that the abbess is actually her mother and that Annith is the child of an affair between the abbess and Crunard, which sent the then not-abbess to the convent where she lied about her own parentage and then also lied about Annith’s. So this is why Annith can’t see the weird death marks that Ismae and Sybella see, and it’s why she doesn’t have special murder skills.
But Annith has still been raised to think of Mortain as her father!! Although she realizes that the love she’s had for him has been different from the love of a daughter for her father, I wanted more work around this. Stating it as an afterthought wasn’t enough for me. She goes from “Mortain is my father and I love him” to “Mortain is my lover and I love him” maybe a little too quickly for me. And it also bothers me because it implies that biological parentage is in some ways the parentage that counts. Even if he isn’t her bio dad, Mortain has still been – to her mind – her father for the last seventeen years. Finding out that he isn’t shouldn’t change anything, you know? It doesn’t change that she still views Ismae and Sybella as sisters! Why does it change her relationship to Mortain?
I also think that his secret identity is why he isn’t as well developed a character – because he’s been developed as a character through the last three books as Mortain, even if we didn’t know him as Mortain when we met Balthazar.
Sigh. This gave me feels. Because while I loved the banter they eventually develop, and I like the way LaFevers writes romantic relationships, I couldn’t get on-board with this one without sliiiightly more emotional work. I wanted Balthazar to just be a hellequin! And maybe for their love to proceed from there.
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Additionally, because I am me and cannot accept that fictional characters aren’t real, I also wanted Annith to spend more time alone, exploring the world that’s around her, because hello, she’s been trapped in a convent for seventeen years. I wanted her to have more time and space to figure out what she wanted for herself – she’s been so used to meeting other people’s expectations that I wanted slightly more for her. Maybe for her to join the Arduinnites and then suss out her feelings for Balthazar – who knows? She gets to save the world! I just want her to make one for herself before View Spoiler » getting into a relationship with a former god whom she thought was her dad « Hide Spoiler.
None of this means that I didn’t love the book – I did! But it was hard for me to feel invested in the romantic relationship. I love, love, loved Annith’s development as a character, though, and felt it was on par with Sybella’s from Dark Triumph.
Final feelings: I do still really love this book and the series as a whole, and highly, highly recommend them to anyone who’s interested at all in assassin nuns or historical fantasy. Robin LaFevers’s writing is amazingly beautiful and her worldbuilding is incredibly skillful. She writes wonderful relationships and I’m especially fond of how well she writes Ismae, Sybella, and Annith’s friendships. (Seriously, to-the-point-of-tears fond.) At ALAN, I was rec’ing this series left and right (and also stealing this book from my friends’ boxes when they let me). Please read the series. It’s so compelling.
Oh hey! We’re giving away a copy of Mortal Heart! Because it’s awesome and everyone should read it.
To win a copy, all you need to do is leave a thoughtful comment below telling us
1. an email where we may contact you
2. why you’re interested in assassin nuns.
You may also earn additional entries by tweeting about the contest daily; just come back and leave another comment with a link to your tweet when it’s posted, and one extra entry may be earned every day through tweets. Please note that you MUST have a public profile so that we can verify the extra entries.
Open to US and Canadian residents aged 13 and older, or 18 and older with parental permission. Please see our giveaway policies for complete details. Contest ends 12/29/14, so if you win, it’ll be a nice treat after the holidays.
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An advance copy was provided by the author for this review.