The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In 1617, a freak storm blew up out of nowhere off the coast of Vardo, a small Norwegian island. At the time, all the fishermen were out on the water, and it killed all 40 of them. It meant that there were almost no men on the island at all, and the women had to take over the men’s work as well as their own to survive. In 1621, the women on the island were persecuted for witchcraft and about 30 of them were convicted. The Mercies takes this historical event as the basis for it’s story.

The main protagonists are Maren, a young woman who loses her father, brother and betrothed in the storm, and Ursa, the inexperienced wife of the witchfinder who comes to the island. They strike up a friendship and slowly develop romantic feelings for each other, as the danger starts to draw in around them and the case for witch trials is made. The book is largely about the lead up, the trials are only the very end of the book.

This book isn’t bad, and if you feel drawn to reading it, you’ll probably enjoy it. To me, it’s a fairly generic witch trials story. There’s the stock figures of the witchfinder, the sassy girl who never would have acted that way in the actual times, the spiteful pious neighbour, the grieving woman, the independent one, the outsider who is a little apart from everyone… It’s not bad, but it does nothing new with the genre.

The idea that you could live in such a removed, out of the way place, and then suddenly half of your village is just gone is mind-blowing. I wanted to see how they survived. The only way that they could is if they worked together, and I thought it would be interesting to see the struggle to learn work that they had never done before or making new friendships to support each other. Pulling together. But instead, the book just makes them bicker.

Maren and her mother seem to mope around a lot. Maren especially has a lot of time to spend with Ursa. Which is kind of silly. The book mentions that they live off meat, fish and crops. Now, when my mother was a kid, the laundry alone took a whole day. In other words, to get everything done that they needed to, they would have to be working constantly. Probably the fact that they were able to survive without men for three years was what brought the accusation of witchcraft down on them. It’s a really interesting thing to explore, but the book doesn’t do this. In this book, we know who will be accused from the first pages and who will be accusing them. In the real situation, about 30 women were convicted, so it’s not so simplistic as the books stock characters make it seem. When a witch trial is on, any of the women can burn, and sometimes all the women burn. The spiteful, pious neighbour is fictional. Innocent people being tortured into confessing so that the reigning church can maintain the status quo and make an example is the reality.

I mean, the book is ok. It’s not bad. I was just hoping for something different. The author isn’t doing anything new, but it’s not poorly written on the whole. I think I’ll follow up reading this with reading some non-fiction about Vardo and the trials. And I really like it when reading one book leads into learning something new and looking for more books.

Read It If: you haven’t read loads about witch trials. If you have, this may feel too light and too familiar. It doesn’t do anything new with the subject and doesn’t dive all that deep, but it has it’s merits and is intersting all the same.

Thank you Hachette for the advance copy of this book for review. The Mercies is out now.

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