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Book series review: "His Fair Assassin" trilogy by Robin LaFevers


Two words: assassin nuns.

I didn't need much more to sell me on the premise of the His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin LaFevers. Daughters of Mortain, the god of death, serve him by training in a convent in espionage, seduction, poisons and weaponry, and in the course of their work influence the course of Breton politics in the late 1400s. They are, aside from the sisters behaving badly, very historically accurate and provide a window to an interesting time and place in history centered on the fraught rise of Duchess Anne of Brittany.

Each book has a different narrator with a distinctive voice, yet the interconnected characters and plots as well as the excellent world building make the novels feel cohesive. I raced through the series and loved each book in a different way.

Grave Mercy — Narrated by Ismae, who was rescued from a violent arranged marriage following a childhood full of rage and neglect, this one reads like Pride and Prejudice with poisoned hair accessories and crossbows. Ismae's story is about devotion and agency. Unquestioning in her service to the convent of Mortain, she's faced with doubts about her faith and how best to worship when she's ordered to kill the man who, despite her initial disdain for him and her charge to pose as his lover, has stolen her heart.

But don't expect a sappy, cheesy love story. Not with quotes like, “I comfort myself with the knowledge that if Duval ever feels smothered by me, it will be because I am holding a pillow over his face.”

This is the one with the most court intrigue. But any boredom or confusion from the politics were soothed by the kickass descriptions of Ismae's many deadly accoutrements.

Dark Triumph — This is the one with the most swashbuckling. It's narrated by Sybella, who has had without a doubt the worst life out of the trio she forms with Ismae and Annith. Sybella is a badass hardened by the most heartbreaking and unrelenting personal traumas a human being could possibly endure. I don't want to spoil her storyline, but here's a blanket trigger warning. Trigger warning. Any trauma you've ever had, or if you're just a sympathetic human being, you will be triggered AF by Sybella's history and inspired by her strength, even if it isn't the warm and fuzzy kind you get from shows on Oprah's network.

Sybella also has a romance, and it's pretty unconventional and swoon-worthy. Not at all as unconventional as Annith's coming up in Part 3, but still, it's a definite odd-coupling that works.

Mortal Heart — Annith's story is the one with the most "What the hell just happened?!" twists. Raised in the convent since she was a baby, Annith is formidable and ready to serve her god, but she's been held back while younger and less prepared girls are sent out, some to their deaths. When the twisty abbess of the convent tells her she's being groomed to be the Seeress, the oracle who guides the convent and never leaves its walls, Annith runs away with little in the way of a plan other than not accepting such an anticlimactic and restrictive fate.

This is also the book with the most supernatural content. We learn a lot more about the mythology of the old gods and meet the Hellequin, riders of Death who gather up wandering souls and escort them to the other side. It's riding with the Hellequin that she meets Balthazaar, a dashing and mysterious individual you won't forget.

This book reunites all three girls, and I would have loved to see more of their friendship and where they all end up. A lot of loose ends are tied and the conclusion is satisfying, but it left me wishing there was another book, or a spinoff that focused on some of the other convents that serve the remaining gods. I would have loved to see more of the servants of Arduinna, the goddess of love's sharp bite. They were basically a bunch of Xena Warrior Princesses. Or a comedy about Salonius, the god of mistakes.

I would without reservation recommend this series. Even the parts that drag pay off, and there's steak under the sizzle of that insane and glorious premise.

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