Annith has watched her gifted sisters at the convent come and go, carrying out their dark dealings in the name of St. Mortain, patiently awaiting her own turn to serve Death. But her worst fears are realized when she discovers she is being groomed by the abbess as a Seeress, to be forever sequestered in the rock and stone womb of the convent. Feeling sorely betrayed, Annith decides to strike out on her own.
She has spent her whole life training to be an assassin. Just because the convent has changed its mind doesn’t mean she has…
For me at least, historical fantasy exists on a spectrum. On one end we have books that are pure fantasy that happen to exist in an established place and time. Think The Young Elites. On the other end we have books that genuinely embrace their setting and for the most part hew close to their source material and use a sprinkling of fantasy to spice up the plot. For the most part, if you took out the fantasy you’d have a pretty solid historical fiction novel. And that’s how I’d honestly describe the first two books of the His Fair Assassin series. The magic in those books was generally rather subtle and limited to things like invulnerability to poisons or the ability to see Mortain’s Marque, a kind of Death Seal of Approval that says it’s morally acceptable to kill the person because they’re awful. Even when Ismae and Sybella, the protagonists of those novels finally saw Mortain, it was presented more as a vision of sorts. The world clearly wasn’t fantastical and you could argue that there wasn’t much in the way of magic at all.
And now we have Mortal Heart.
Not long after Annith runs away, we meet the hellequin, a group of souls trying to obtain redemption for their sins by hunting the souls of the lost and the stubborn and bringing them to cross into the afterlife. Mortain himself plays a good sized role in the last bit of the story and a magical object literally resolves the three book conflict between Brittany and France. It feels quite like LaFevers has changed the rules on us at a very late point in the game. That spectrum I mentioned? Look at it this way:
Grave Mercy was undoubtedly the most grounded of the three. Dark Triumph had a bit more more magic at the very end, but was still pretty well grounded overall. Mortal Heart however has taken us almost into full on fantasy mode. If this hadn’t been the third book in a trilogy, I’d called this a fantasy first and historical fiction second. It may feel like I’m hammering this book for what may be a non-issue, but I couldn’t help but find it a jarring turn of affairs. Had this book come first, I don’t know if I’d kept reading. This book’s ending was so dependent on magic it almost felt like LaFevers didn’t know how to end the book otherwise with a happy-ish YA appropriate ending with what she had going, so turned to fantasy to get there. It felt cheap.
It’s a shame too, because there is a lot to like here. It’s great seeing Ismae and Sybella again, and a lot of the stories set up in the past two books were resolved here in generally satisfying ways. I think LaFevers fans will genuinely enjoy themselves. I know I did, I all but devoured it except for the very end where I admit to groaning some.
Ultimately can’t help but wish LaFevers had stayed true to the feel of the first two books. Historical fiction in YA isn’t the most common to begin with, and to find some that is genuinely well researched and the girls don’t feel too modern is rarer still. This book was definitely on the historical side of historical fantasy and was the more interesting for it. I just can’t shake the feeling that by dipping heavily into the fantastic when she’d shown such restraint in the prior books it’s lost something and that feeling that something wasn’t quite right was a bit difficult to shake off.
It’s still a pretty easy recommendation, but that shift to more of an overt fantasy world kept this great book from being Best of 2014 material.
Verdict: Buy It