Series review: His Fair Assassin


Title: His Fair Assassin series
Author: Robin LaFevers
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Release Date: April 3, 2012
Genre/Age Group: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Add it: Goodreads
Rating: 4 Stars

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?

my thoughts

(Yes, I have already reviewed Grave Mercy separately, but after finishing both Dark Triumph and Mortal Heart I feel like I can most accurately sum up my thoughts in a series review.)

Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin series is one I have put off for the longest time, mostly because it intimidated me too much. I don’t have a lot of experience reading historical fiction and for some reason I thought these books were going to be very dense and hard to get through. The opposite was true. Just a couple of chapters into Grave Mercy, I fell completely in love with the world, the politics and the characters, and I couldn’t put it down. Unfortunately for me, I was on vacation at the time, and after finishing the first book, there was no way to get my hands on the second and third straightaway. So I sulked, because I was so very into this world LaFevers has created, in which the brutal wars between Brittany in France in the 15th century got combined with folklore fantasy and court politics. And assassins. I immediately fell in love with the convent of Mortain, in which his daughters were trained to be his handmaidens. 15th century assassin nuns, trained to seduce men and kill them when they’re vulnerable. It’s like this series was written for me.

After finishing all three books, I especially like how well they each show different parts of the story, and complement each other so well. Grave Mercy, the first book, starts slowly with the arrival of Ismae at the convent and then the Breton court, and we learn about the history and politics of 15th century Brittany most of all. In Dark Triumph, a lot of the politics is pushed back in favor of Sybella’s personal story, which was horrible to read about, but it also definitely made Sybella the most fleshed-out character of the three of them. Mortal Heart focuses on the mythological side of things, as we follow Annith from the convent to find her destiny and her place in Mortain’s grace. While reading the first book especially, I kept wishing to learn more about the mythological side of things, or I thought the way the politics were left off in Grave Mercy was a bit abrupt. However, when you look at all three books combined, it’s just an amazing story. Both this and the fact that I found them very easy to read made me wish I would have binge-read this series. In fact, if I hadn’t brought the first book with me on vacation and had yet to order the others, I would have done just that.

So, let’s get into the separate books a bit more. Even though I already reviewed Grave Mercy separately, I am going to repeat my thoughts here because I want to and because my initial review was all over the place. The thing with reading Grave Mercy was that, though a lot of people apparently thought it was a bit slow, I wish it could have been longer. However, now that I’ve read all three books, I know I wouldn’t have felt that way if I’d just binged the series. But I repeat myself. In the first book of the series, we meet Ismae, who, after a brief marriage to an asshole, learns that she is the daughter of Mortain, the god of death, and is sent to his convent to train to be come his handmaiden (also known as assassin). After Ismae gets sent out on her first mission a few years later, she eventually gets sent to the Breton court, and there she has to deal with the politics of a country about to go to war with France. This part of the story actually reminded me of the start of The Crown of Embers, and court politics never manage to bore me. Even though I think Ismae is the most standard and least fleshed-out of the characters LaFevers has created, I do love her feistiness and stubbornness. I just wish she had been developed a little more. I also really enjoyed the romance, even though I usually struggle with that part, and not in a small part because of the best sex scene in the history of ever.

Where Grave Mercy, more than anything, tells the story of the politics in Brittany, Dark Triumph is focused on Sybella’s personal story, which makes her a much better developed character than Ismae. I am so glad LaFevers chose a different path, because Sybella is, by far, my favorite of the three assassins, both because of her general attitude and because she is better developed than the rest of them. Sybella’s story is also the hardest to read, though, because it focuses on her gruesome childhood. After barely getting the chance to heal from her past in the convent, the abbess sends Sybella back into the horrific household of her father, filled with abusive assholes, and I wanted to punch them all with bricks. Watching Sybella (who reminds me of both Quintana of Charyn and Helena from Orphan Black, except slightly less out of it) face her demons was awful, but she is so strong and I love her so much, my precious queen. Her romance was also my favorite of the three, because I love Beast the most. I do, in a way, feel like Sybella gets the most overlooked of all three handmaidens, and with her story being the shortest, I can’t help but feel like she deserved more. Mostly, I wish her story had been longer – not because I feel like the plot wasn’t finished, as I feel like her story was very well-written, but because I just want more of her, and I feel like there could have been more.

Mortal Heart is, in my opinion, the best of all of them, although not necessarily my favorite. The way LaFevers crafted this story is just very impressive. We start out back at the convent with Annith, and after two books where the convent was barely a prominent setting, I was happy to finally learn how it really worked. What this final book in the trilogy also cleared up was the mythology, which I hadn’t realized I missed in the first two books until this one. In Mortal Heart, Annith is stuck. The abbess wants her to become the convent’s seeress, while Annith has always so desperately wanted to go out and serve Mortain – and because she is the best novitiate he has probably ever had. I didn’t like Annith at all in the first two books – I thought she was whiny for no reason – but surprisingly, I liked her a lot in this book. She is still my least favorite, but I could really understand her thought process, and could relate to her feeling of loneliness at times. The romance is not my favorite, because it made me feel a bit weird for spoilery reasons, but I do think it was a really cool thing. It’s really hard to talk about this book without discussing spoilers, because a large part of why I think this is such a good book is the big twist at the end (or series of big twists is more like it). I also loved seeing Ismae, Sybella and Annith together for the first time, and I wish there had been more of that. Squad goals tbh.

There are more things that stood out to me. I loved, for example, how there was this subtle feminist message throughout the entire series. I say subtle because, not talking about the fact that it is about assassin nuns killing men, there were these smaller moments of female empowerment and justice, for example when Sybella tells Julian what he did was not and never would have been okay, and Annith telling Balthazaar that the fact that she entices his men is not her problem but theirs. This blatant stab at victim shaming is so important and I’m so happy LaFevers wrote these moments in. Furthermore, I just loved so many of the side characters. Anne, for one, is one of my absolute favorites. She was, in every way, such an inspiring character, and one it was just impossible not to love. Duval, like Ismae, was not the most original and outstanding of characters, but brothers protecting their baby sisters will never not get to me, and I admired his brilliant strategies. Beast is my favorite of the male characters, for loving Sybella, but also just for being so kind to pretty much everyone. Balthazaar I didn’t really like, because for the most part, he was the embodiment of the typical dark, brooding guy in YA. However, I love how LaFevers wrote his character, and that improves much.

All in all, I think that the His Fair Assassin series is amazing, and one of the best series for binge-reading I have ever read. I just wish I’d done that. I’m so impressed with the mythology that LaFevers created (especially in Mortal Heart, this was one of my favorite aspects) and there were such great plot twists that I really do think she’s an amazing storyteller. I love the main characters (Ismae, even though she is the least original, Sybella, because she is a precious queen, and Annith, because I could relate to her) and surprisingly, I also loved the romance (Ismae and Duval, because they are adorable and because of that sex scene, Sybella and Beast, because they are precious and sweet and they deserve it so much, and Annith and Balthazaar, not because I liked their romance per se, but because of that plot twist and because it makes sense). Though I don’t think it’s completely perfect, I had the best time discovering this world, politics and mythology and history included. I loved both the court politics and the traveling the country, both the assassin aspect and the war games, and just the entire atmosphere of this series. It’s just really, really good.

Forever hesitating between 4 and 4.5 stars.

memorable quotes

(I already listed my favorite Grave Mercy quotes here, but these are from Dark Triumph and Mortal Heart.)

“You never said how you know so much about treating injuries,” the knight says.
I glance up at him in annoyance. “Why have you not yet passed out from the pain?”

“One of the men loses his grip, and the horse startles, slamming Beast’s wounded leg between its flank and the helping guard, and Beast faints.
I sigh. “I fear that has become a new habit of his,” I murmur to the others.”

 “I didn’t abduct you; I rescued you!” He sounds affronted by my lack of appreciation.
“I did not ask to be rescued!”

“And so I turned to Saint Mer. Her wildish nature called to me. I wished to dance with storms, like She did.”

 “Truly, we are the gods’ own children, forged in the fire of our tortured pasts, but also blessed with unimaginable gifts.”

“From the moment I was first sent out, nothing was as I had been preparing for. There was none of the black and white that the convent had used to paint the world for us. The people, the politics, the world itself, were much more nuanced, with who was right and who was wrong often simply a matter of where one stood.”

“Of a sudden, I feel shy around her, around both of them, for they have changed so much, and I feel as if I have been let behind to calcify and harden like a barnacle on the hull of one of the convent’s boats.”

Ismae opens her mouth, then closes it again. “I do not know,” she finally admits, “but I would like to think she would not kill an innocent man.”
Sybella rolls her eyes. “There is a reason you are Mortain’s mercy and I am not.”

“We cannot be held responsible for what our families do, especially when we have no way to control them.”

Judith is a 21 year old book blogger and reviewer, English student, part time magazine editor, compulsive book buyer, aspiring writer, proud book pusher, founder of Paper Riot and co-founder of the Recaptains. She is kind of addicted to Twitter. More?

2 Responses to “Series review: His Fair Assassin”

  1. Lara says:

    I loved this series! It’s one of the few series I’ve actually finished in the last few years because I binged it all at once. I’m glad you enjoyed this series :)

  2. Alexa S. says:

    I just LOVE the HIS FAIR ASSASSIN series. It’s one of my favorites! I love that each girl’s novel is very different, and yet connected by the bigger plotline woven all throughout the series. And I love that the setting and political situation is so excellently concocted, and that the characters are complex and intriguing. So happy you enjoyed these books!

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