REVIEW | The Mercies | Kiran Millwood-Hargrave

The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut adult novel, isn’t out until February 6th 2020, which is a shame because it’s ALL! I! WANT! TO! TALK! ABOUT! It’s a gorgeous book, with the cover inspired by Rosemaling, a traditional Norwegian folk art where wood is painted with decorative floral art.

I gave this book 4 stars in my initial impressions review, available here, with the caveat that I think this would be a five star book to anyone who loves historical fiction.

Read me for the…

  • Historical fiction (1600s Norway)
  • Beautiful settings
  • F/F romance
  • Strong women
  • Witch trials ( ☹ )

Trigger Warnings:

Arranged marriage and non-graphic marital rape, non-graphic sexual and domestic violence and coercive control. Violence against women, systematic and cultural sexism. Racism, religious fanaticism, witch hunts and associated torture and murder. Grief and loss of family, mass death due to natural disaster. Also, Absalom Cornet deserves his own trigger warning.

The Plot:

The Mercies is inspired by a historical event, the Vardø storm of 1617 where a terrible storm sank ten ships and killed forty men- the majority of Vardø’s male population. This storm ultimately led to one of the biggest witch-trials in Scandinavia, and the first major witch-trial in Norway under the new laws of witchcraft and sorcery.

Maren Magnusdatter watched her father, brother and her husband-to-be die in the sudden storm, along with all of the men in her village. Left behind are just boys that were too young to go out to fish, and the women. They must learn to fend for themselves. And they adjust, as women often do, learning to cope with their collective grief and teaching themselves to fish and to slaughter and to take on the jobs that were traditionally male. They survive that way for eighteen months, before a pious Scotsman is sent to regain control of Vardø and the women who live there. Absalom Cornet isn’t just a religious man, he is also a violent witch-hunter and where his young wife Ursa sees independent, strong women, he sees danger and evil that must be rooted out at all costs. This story is as twisted by suspicion as it is empowered by love, and shows the best and the worst that can come of a very human desire to survive.

What did I love?

  • The tone: This book is dark, and miserable. It’s as cold and bitter as the winters that Kiran Millwood Hargrave so beautifully describes. This wasn’t a gentle or soft story, it was sad and haunting and it left me angry. But that was part of what made it such a powerful and compelling read. I don’t tend to read historical fiction, and I requested this book because of my fascination with witch-trials and the hype around Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel rather than an interest in the genre. But, despite my usual disinterest in historical fiction, I was engaged in this from the start. The language was poetic and vivid, and I could practically feel the cold as I read this, even in the early-September heat. Once I’d hit the 50% mark, I was in it until the very end, because I couldn’t put it down for fear of what was going to happen to the characters I’d become so attached to. There is romance in this story, and the relationship between Maren and Ursa is beautiful (more on that later) but the real undercurrent of this story is suspicion and fear.

    From the moment the first fractures appear in the Vardø women, and they start to separate into two groups, you get a strong sense of impending sorrow. It’s not going to end happily, and that only gets clearer the further you get into the book. I found myself increasingly invested in just getting the characters I love to the end of the book alive. My flatmate came home when I was 90% finished with this novel, and I think she’d agree that I was very pathetic as I told her ‘I don’t think I have enough pages left for this to end happily’. Still, the ending itself was as beautiful as the rest of this book, and I immediately turned to Twitter to find anyone I could talk about it with. My biggest regret is reading this book in September when nobody I know has read it.

  • Maren and Ursa: I loved Maren and Ursa, and their relationship. Maren is hard-working and drawn thin, embittered by the storm and her loss. She’s lost pretty much everything, and she’s watching her family fall apart as suspicion tears between her mother and her sister-in-law. She’s drawn to Ursa from the first time she sees her. Ursa was raised with servants and money until her mother passed away and her family’s fortune changed. She was her sister’s nurse and best friend, until her father married her off to Absalom Cornet for a ‘better’ future. Maren and Ursa have an organic love, one that comes naturally from care and affection and as a side-effect of two women being each other’s only gentle touch in a harsh and cruel world. It was beautiful. It felt like they had found something safe and peaceful together, and I was in constant fear that Absalom or the kirke-women were going to shatter that fragile peace.

  • Absalom Cornet: Okay, I didn’t LOVE Absalom. I hated him. I hate him viscerally, and spent most of my time reading this book tweeting angrily about how much I absolutely hate him. But that made him a really compelling villain of this piece. When we first meet him, I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, because some of his behaviour could be attributed to the way that society at the time treated women, and societal norms don’t necessarily make someone a bad person. The rest of Absalom’s behaviour makes him a bad person, and I progressed from benefit of the doubt to actively wanting to burn him at the stake. He wasn’t scary like a fantasy villain, because he was always just a man, but I found him upsetting and scary to read about nonetheless because he had so much power over these women and nobody to rein him in.

What did I not love?

  • Absalom Cornet: I’m putting him on this list too, because while I loved the way Absalom Cornet was portrayed, I maintain that I absolutely HATE him.

Where can I buy?

Pan Macmillan // Waterstones // Book Depository // Amazon

If you can, please support your local independent booksellers!

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