The central paradox of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, is that the thing that gets Ismae Rienne banished from her fellow Bretons (the scar left by the herbwitch’s poison and the “proof” that she was sired by the god of death) is the very thing that gains her admission to her proper tribe.
Ismae discovers, upon reaching the convent of Saint Mortain, that there are many others like her, who have survived death-defying events, and this creates a bond and closeness between her and the others that she has never experienced before. But it also creates within her a tension that’s new to her: the sisters have trained her in poisons and weaponry and “the womanly arts,” but when Ismae is on assignment—alone—she must search her own conscience. Is Gavriel Duval, whom the abbess and Chancellor Crunard suspect of leaking the secrets of Brittany’s inner court to France, truly a traitor? Or is his loyalty to the duchess as unwavering as it seems to Ismae in the days and weeks that she has shadowed him? And what of the others with the “mark” of Saint Mortain? Are they irredeemable? Do they deserve to die?
Ismae is torn between the loyalty she feels toward the sisters in the convent, the only true home she’s ever known, and what she believes for herself when it’s just Ismae and her mark. These kinds of choices serve as metaphors for the defining moments of adolescence, which lead the way to adulthood. It’s about taking responsibility for our choices and living with that responsibility, whatever we deem it, right or wrong, in hindsight. Ismae has come far to gain this sisterhood, but she must travel further—alone—to come to herself.