By Robin LaFevers
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012. 549 pgs. Young Adult.
Ismae, the daughter of Death himself, is forced into an arranged marriage to a man who doesn't realize that she has the evil mark upon her. When he discovers it, he intends to have her destroyed, but she is rescued instead and taken to a convent dedicated to serving Death. There she is trained in how to kill in various ways--weapons, poisons, etc.--and finds strength she didn't know she possessed. Before she takes her final vows, she is sent out on a mission that makes her challenge what she thought she knew about Death and her convent--and her own heart. Although she has long feared/hated men for their cruelty, her mission has her paired up with Gavriel Duval, the bastard son of the deceased duke, who is determined to protect his half sister and get her crowned before France can invade or corrupt barons force her into marriage. Although her abbess sends her to spy on Duval as well as eliminate anyone with the marque of death, Ismae finds herself drawn to Duval and wonders if he could really be the traitor the abbess says he is.
This is a first-rate piece of historical fantasy. With political intrigue, a well-developed setting, action, romance, and complex, engaging characters, this book pretty much has it all. Ismae and Duval are both such real characters, struggling to figure out what they want and what is right. There is some violence and innuendo, and the idea of girls being trained to carry out death is gruesome, so it's probably more appropriate for older teens, but for those who are ready for it, it's a gripping book that will leave you anxiously awaiting the second book in the series.