I have been a fan of Robin LaFevers ever since I read the first Theodosia book, one of my all time favorite middle grade characters. So when I heard she was writing a YA novel about assassin nuns I knew I just had to read it. Grave Mercy is one of those books that leaves you with two problems when you are done. The first problem is the WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET THE SECOND BOOK NOW NOW NOW?!!! problem. The second problem is that you will be mad at yourself for reading it too fast. I actually resolved number 2 by rereading the book in its entirety on the same day I read it – until 4:30 in the morning. And it was Daylight Savings Day so I lost an extra hour of sleep on top of it. Thanks Robin, thanks a lot for a sleepless night. I think you need to make it up to me by letting me read book 2 ASAP! (Yes, it is my cheesy attempt to resolve my number 1 problem.)
So to say that I loved this book to death is not an understatement as I looked like death the next morning. But it made me so very excited to start this interview and ask Robin all of my burning questions.
E – Thanks Robin for writing a historical fantasy with a kickass heroine and a really great hero. Is it possible to be in love with a book? Cause I’m in love with Grave Mercy!
R – Ha! I certainly hope it’s possible to be in love with a book because there are many such books I feel that way about! That you feel that way about Grave Mercy makes me giddy with happiness.
E – Ok Robin, how the heck did you come up with assassin nuns who are the handmaidens of the God of Death?
R – I wanted to find a way to give this medieval heroine some power in a time when women were horribly powerless—essentially chattel. But I also wanted that source of power to feel organic and true to the historical world. One fascinating tidbit I read said that many noblewomen were all too happy to join a convent because being a nun often gave them much more freedom and autonomy than being a wife!
Once I had that in my head, I began mulling over different sorts of convents and what sorts of power they’d confer to their inhabitants. Healers felt like a natural choice, which is why I shied away from it. I wanted something darker, more ambiguous, and ultimately something that would shake the very foundation of what my characters thought they knew about the world. I wanted to look at things like faith and devotion and blind obedience through that darker lens.
Plus? I went to Catholic school when I was younger and I was so fascinated by the mystery of the nuns and the life they led behind those cloistered walls that I felt the need to explore it in fiction.
E – Oh you know I've been fascinated with nuns ever since watching The Sound of Music as a little girl! I have to tell you that my absolute favorite part of your book is the fact that Ismae is just such an awesome hero (I refuse to say heroine – she’s a hero!)! She’s a flawed person with a difficult past that shapes her to become this tough assassin nun. And yet, she has a strong mind of her own that allows her to question things and to be cautious. She makes mistakes and then she learns from them. She’s smart and I loved that about her. So thank you for creating a girl hero who can save the day and save her man, not just because she’s strong, but because she’s smart and resourceful.
R – You are so welcome! I am convinced we can use the hardships we endure as a transformative experience and become better people, so I guess it makes sense that my hero would have that kind of arc. I also believe that questioning things is one of our sacred duties—we were given these amazing, thinking, questioning brains, so let’s use them fer gawd’s sake!
E – Absolutely!! How challenging was it for you to weave in historical facts with the fantastical elements of your story? Can you share with us any difficulties you encountered and how you resolved them?
R – Weaving the historical with the fantastical is one of my favorite pastimes. This is especially true since one of my fascinations with history revolves around the spiritual mysteries and mythology of the time period.
About 80% of the book is based on true historical fact—the duchess, her family, her suitors, her councilors—all plucked from the actually history of the time. However, the political intrigue and backstabbing that went on in real life was actually about double what it was in the book—there were even more suitors vying for her hand, two other claimants to the duchy, and about half a dozen more traitors. The hard part was pruning it back so that the political and historical elements didn’t swamp Ismae’s story. It was hard because it was all so interesting! Ultimately, I had to decide what was most important to the core story of Ismae’s journey. But the original dramatis personae had about twice as many names on it, which should give you an idea of how complicated the first draft was.
E – Sounds like lots of stuff you can mine their for more books and even short stories! (hint hint!) So I love Ismae and Duval. They are such a wonderful couple. The romance that develops between them not only feels right, but it sweeps the reader into their passion. Was it the romance that drove you to the story or the fantasy or the history?
R – Oh wow. Good question. It’s always so interesting to try and follow those ideas backward and see which developed first! For this story, it was really all of a piece. I wanted to write an epic romance, not just in the boy meets girl sense, but in the tradition of the old romances, sweeping saga with lives and kingdoms hanging in the balance and where people must make the right choices under nearly impossible circumstances. From the very beginning I had this vision of the heroine’s choices and actions taking her to a moment where her heart was split in two, because it is through those hardest choices that our true character is revealed.
E – To everyone reading this interview, I can vouch for the fact that Grave Mercy is a fabulous sweeping old romance saga and you will love it! Especially because the world was really detailed and very vivid. Robin, I know you love research so please tell us what your research process was like. Did you go to France? ;o)
R – I wish! I’m hoping if the book sells well enough, I can treat myself with a Real Live Research Trip.
Sadly, my research pattern is not even remotely linear. It is much more like a scattershot graph; very much all over the place with seemingly random leaps and connections.
Once I knew I wanted to set the book in the middle ages, I did some general, big picture research on Medieval Europe as I cast about looking for an actual historic event or person to link the story to. Once I had that, I followed up with a lot of in depth research online, simply for the sheer breadth of the knowledge available. I would spend days online, following link after link and getting farther and farther down that rabbit hole. But it all paid off. There are so many obscure, historical and genealogical sites out there, many of which have some decent academic credentials, that I was able to get a fairly reliable overview of 15th century Brittany and its politics.
Once I had a firm grasp of that, my research took on a more narrow focus as I tried to recreate the details of the period and the people in my mind so I could make them breathe on the page.
As is always the case, much of what I learned didn’t make it into the book—there just wasn’t room for all those details!—but I have to hope that just knowing them somehow made the story richer.
E – I loved your secondary characters, most especially the other two teenage assassin nuns. The second book is about Sybella and the third book is about Annith, correct? Will we still see Ismae in the next two books?
R – We will see Ismae, although it will be more of a cameo appearance as her struggles will not take center stage again.
E – I was fascinated by how you weaved in the old gods and their mythology and how they could exist along with the Catholic Church by calling them saints. Can you tell us a little more about their origins?
R – One of the things that has always fascinated me is how the early Catholic Church made such a conscious choice to subsume earlier gods and goddess into Christianity in order to make it easier for the populace to accept. Their hope was that if people recognized their own older gods or festivals within Christianity, they would be more eager to embrace it. So old gods became saints, some ancient myths became miracle stories, a new church was built by the ancient sacred spring. There are dozens of instances where this sort of conscious absorption occurred.
This is especially fascinating to me when viewed against how, a few centuries later once the church had become universally accepted, it became fanatical about removing any such influences.
E – Ismae’s talent is an amazing one. She is immune to poison of any kind. But then you have her develop her talent to an entirely different level which I won’t reveal here but I thought was very clever. How did the whole idea come to you and how much herblore research did you have to do? Are you skilled enough now to brew your own poisons?
R – That talent that you’re referring to wasn’t so much a conscious decision but instead sprang organically from Ismae’s other talents.
I did spend a lot of time researching poisons and herbs! In fact, I think I worried my oldest son when he came home from college on break and saw books like THE BOOK OF POISONS and MURDER AND MAYHEM. When I told him they were for research purposes only, he decided I had the coolest job ever. (He is right, by the way.)
I probably spent far more time than was actually warranted by how much I used in the story, but I had to understand fully how they worked and acted upon the body. I also consulted older medieval herbals so I would be true to the medieval understanding of how poisons worked on the body.
E – I agree with your son! I love how you layered your book with religion, politics, war, betrayal, and romance. But then if you look at history, it’s all there isn’t it? What was the hardest part of writing this book for you?
R – The hardest part really was culling out layers and layers of the politics that threatened to swamp the story.
Well actually, the hardest part was giving myself permission to write it in the first place. Because, as you say, it has religion and romance and politics, it doesn’t exactly scream YOUNG ADULT NOVEL. However, Ismae’s core journey felt very much like a YA journey to me. But even knowing that, it took a while (and a fair amount of Jedi mind tricks on myself) for me to get comfortable writing this book for a YA audience.
E - Believe me, Robin, everyone is going to be so glad that you finally got comfortable because you did a remarkable job! Please, can you share anything about the next book in the series? Anything juicy that will have us salivating for more (as if I’m not drooling enough already!)?
R – When Sybella sprang onto the page, half mad with rage and despair, I realized I simply had to know what had happened to her. Also, I wanted to get her out of that dark place as quickly as possible, so Book Two explores her traumatic past and moves her toward hope and redemption.
As for a juicy tidbit? Hmm. Let’s just say that, if you haven’t seen the dead body on the page, you shouldn’t make any assumptions.
E –Oooh that's just mean! Now I'm dying to read the next book! And may I just say that this interview really made me love this book more. So everyone out there, go run out and read Grave Mercy. You won't regret it!