Hi everyone! I hope you’re all doing well! It’s another driech day here in Scotland so it’s time for another book review that is actually quite suited to the weather! After owning a couple of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books for the best part of a year, I figured it was about time to read one, especially since I’d heard so many great things, and I definitely was not disappointed in the slightest!
Title: The Mercies
Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Genre: Historical Fiction, LGBT, Adult
Synopsis: Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Magnusdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Arctic town of Vardø must fend for themselves.
Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God, and flooded with a mighty evil.
As Maren and Ursa are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them, with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence.
Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, The Mercies is a story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.
In my high school Higher English class I remember reading Arthur Miller’s famous play, The Crucible and, unlike a large part of my class, thoroughly enjoyed the read. To this day, it is still one of my favourite plays and I treasure my time reading it in class with my friends and an absolutely brilliant teacher. But sadly, my knowledge of witch trials doesn’t go much further than the infamous Salem witch trials, particularly since many books that touch on the subject, such as These Witches Don’t Burn, are extremely America-centric. So, I was so intrigued to find a book on the Vardø witch trials of the 1600s, and particularly Scotland’s involvement in them, and the fact that it is sapphic made me even more excited to read it!
The Mercies follows Maren Magnusdatter who, at the start of the book, has a troubling dream where she is looking into a beached whale’s eye while men butcher the animal; watching the life leave its eyes. On the night of Christmas Eve, the men of the small island village of Vardø leave to go fishing, but when a storm appears out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly, killing over forty men, life in the village is changed forever. With the women having to fend for themselves, outsiders sense that something needs to be done, and so Scottish commissioner Absalom Cornet makes his way to the island to rid it of ungodly happenings, picking up a Norwegian wife, Ursa, on the way. Upon his arrival, Absalom realises that things are much worse than he feared and soon several women’s lives are at risk.
As Kiran mentions in the author’s note at the end of the book, this story is very much a character study of how the island got to the state it is in at the end of the book. I for one am a sucker for character driven books and character studies in particular so this was right up my street. Seeing the women of the village slowly falling into a witch-hunting pandemonium was terrifying and at several points in the story I found myself in tears. On top of that, the world building was absolutely phenomenal and Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing style is so unbelievably lyrical and beautiful that I found myself completely immersed in her storytelling.
As this is a character study, the characters were, of course, the highlight of the book. We read from two character’s perspectives – Maren and Ursa – and I loved both of their unique voices. Maren is one of the women in the village who volunteer to go in the first fishing boat after the island’s men die and the women slowly begin to run out of food. She is an extremely strong female character (as much as I hate that phrase!) and seeing her character growth throughout the novel was so great! Ursa is a young woman who was raised by a relatively rich family whose finances started to dwindle a little after her mother died, and who has to look after her disabled younger sister whom she adores. Ursa is a much more ‘gentle’ character than Maren and her constant optimism was so sweet to read, even though at times she was quite naïve. I loved seeing their friendship grow and the strength that they found in each other was definitely a shining light in an otherwise quite bleak novel. I also really enjoyed the side characters, including Kirsten, who takes charge of the women after the men die, and Diina, Maren’s Sámi sister in law.
Despite this being a very character driven book, I did at times find the first half of the book to be very slow. Although the book did build up to an explosive ending, it felt like a lot of waiting just for something to happen, which is why it took me much longer than usual to finish this book, so I think if you love plot driven books then this one definitely isn’t for you.
Saying that, I really did enjoy my time reading this book, in spite of it’s harrowing and heart-wrenching subject matter. The sapphic romance was extremely sweet and and I learned so much from this book while reading it. If you are looking for a book with an amazing character study that is set in a small isolated village, then this is definitely a book you should pick up!