Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers is one of the most badass books we’ve read in a while. If you like medieval France, not-so-sweet nuns, and courtly intrigue, it’s sure to appeal to you. In LaFevers’s first foray into YA, she explores an alternate French history–one populated by killer nuns. When Ismae, a teenage daughter of Death (literally–Death is her father), flees an arranged marriage and finds herself at an abbey, she’s thrust into a world she barely understands–and allied with a man she isn’t sure she can trust. Sound cool? You can start reading Grave Mercy on Figment now!
We recently got the change to interview Robin and learn her weapon of choice. If she were an assassin, we mean. She’s not. Probably. We also learned that she’s a big research nerd. Aw, yeah . . . nerd power.
Describe Grave Mercy in five words.
Teen assassin-nuns in medieval France.
You used to read a lot of fairy tales when you were younger. Which ones are your favorites? Have they contributed to your writing?
I was lucky in that my first exposure to fairy tales didn’t come from children’s books, but from my mother’s fairy tale collections, so I cut my reading teeth on the darker, less watered-down versions. I think that’s precisely why they appealed to me so much—the dark underbelly of the tales really resonated with me. They weren’t sugarcoating the world but conveying a kernel of truth, no matter how dark it might be. Some of my favorite fairy tales were “Hansel and Gretel,” “Bluebeard,” “Snow White,” and “The Firebird.” Another favorite of mine, although not so dark, was “Beauty and the Beast.” I was really drawn to the unconditional love that developed between Beast and Beauty, and I was sorely disappointed when the beast turned into a boring, handsome prince.
You’ve said that you daydream often—what do you usually daydream about? Have any of your daydreams ever turned into stories?
If daydreaming were an Olympic sport, I’m pretty sure I would qualify as a gold medalist! However, I wouldn’t say my daydreaming turns into stories. It is too vague and unfocused for that. I often don’t even realize what I’m daydreaming about! I just let my mind roam and explore what if questions and wonder about why people act the way they do. (I also spend a lot of energy thinking of all the cool things I could have said if only I’d thought of them in time.) Since becoming a professional writer, I do try to have more focused daydreaming, but it doesn’t always work out the way I plan it.
I also believe that, while daydreaming, our subconscious minds make important connections, and that it’s an important percolating and fermentation process for our story ideas. The ideas sit in there for a while, being colored by all the other ideas around it, and eventually turn into something uniquely ours and useable.
One of the great things daydreaming did for me when I was young was exercise my imagination muscle. By the time I decided to become a writer, I had lots of practice trying on different personalities and imagining myself to be someone other than who I am.
The main character in Grave Mercy, Ismae, joins a group of female assassins after being forced into an arranged marriage. If you were an assassin, what would be your weapon of choice?
If I were an assassin, I would be a gentle assassin, so my weapon of choice would probably be poison, and a benevolent poison at that. I really like the idea of death being one really long, excellent nap.
The assassins in Grave Mercy aren’t just assassins—they’re assassin nuns. What was it like writing about those women? What do you imagine they look like?
Writing about assassin nuns was such an intriguing challenge! If one worships Death, what does faith look like? How would one demonstrate devotion? What rituals and sacraments would be unique to that religious experience? Then of course I had to ask, What does Death truly want of his acolytes? How would their faith be tested? All very meaty questions that took me an entire book to figure out.
As for what they look like: at the convent they wear the traditional habit made up of long skirts and full sleeves—although it can be black or gray or blue, depending on their duties. When they are sent out on assignment, they wear the clothing that their cover story requires, either a peasant gown or full court regalia. I imagine them all to have rather fierce expressions on their faces.
A few years ago, there was a fabulous picture of Cate Blanchett in Vogue magazine. She was wearing this very medieval-looking black helmet with feathers that looked just like the sort of battle helmet the abbess of St. Mortain might wear.
Can you give us any hints about what we can look forward to seeing in the next His Fair Assassin book?
After Grave Mercy comes Dark Triumph, the second book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy. This book will focus on poor, embattled Sybella. When the convent sends her an order to free a wounded knight, it sets her on a journey to face her dark past and find a way back to hope and forgiveness and redemption. While the book will focus on Sybella’s story, Ismae and Duval are in it as well, but in more supporting roles. After that will be the third book in the trilogy, Mortal Heart, which will feature Annith’s story. They are sequels to each other in that they continue the drama of the duchess trying to hold onto her kingdom, but the different stages of that struggle are seen through the eyes of the three different girls.
Did you do a lot of historical research for Grave Mercy?
Yes! Luckily, I am a major research geek, so I enjoyed every minute of it.
I knew I wanted to write an epic romance filled with high stakes and impossible choices, with lives and kingdoms hanging in the balance. And I wanted my teen protagonists to take center stage, be the prime movers of the drama. While I could have easily set the story in an alternate world, for me personally, I love reading about stories that have their roots in history—it gives it all a much more it-could-really-have-happened kind of feel to it.
One of the (many!) things I love about research is that not only do I learn amazing details about how people lived and thought centuries ago, but there is such great story material as well. I’m not sure I could have dreamed up a 12-year-old inheriting a kingdom, but once I stumbled across it in my research, I knew that was the perfect backdrop for the book.
Then I researched the time period, the politics, the geography, what everyday life was like back then, and the folklore and spiritual beliefs. I acquired all sorts of wonderful research books. (In fact, my husband insists that I only write so I have an excuse to buy research books!) Luckily, I write in the age of Google, so I had access to a wealth of information. Oftentimes I was able to look up ancient Breton lineages on obscure genealogy sites, or I would find that the walled medieval city where Anne lived still existed and I could see it online.
[Read more about on Robin’s website!]
Grave Mercy is your first foray into young adult fiction. How is writing YA different from writing other genres?
What appealed to me the most about writing YA is that the genre is very much about learning who we are, or who we want to be. That includes some of the really big issues, like religion and faith and how we define love and success (as opposed to how our families or society define them). It opened up an entire world of subjects and themes that I wasn’t able to tackle when writing middle-grade books.
My own teen years were fraught with drama and upheaval. My parents divorced when I was young, and I had a series of stepfathers and quite a lot of stepbrothers. When I was 12, my mom packed me and my two brothers and all our dogs up in the station wagon and we ran away in the middle of the night to a new town and a new life. A lot of my own wounds and scars come from that time, and so it is one of my most fertile places to write from.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
That you MUST write every day. For some writers, this is the perfect piece of advice. Some people need the discipline and routine of writing every day. That feeds their process, but not everyone’s. Mine, for example, needs lots of fermenting time, so I have long fallow periods where I let the ideas and words steep and simmer.
That’s one of the things I think writers need to be most wary of—taking anyone’s writing advice as The Only Way. Sure, it’s great to try out different approaches and see if they work for you, but if they don’t, feel free to jettison them and look for advice that does.
Except for the part about getting the words down on the paper. That pretty much needs to happen. But how it happens is up to you!