Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date – 2 October 2018
In the dark and cold realm of Vorseland, life is hard and death is easy. This is especially the case for young women Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa, who eke out a living as Boneless Mercies. Mercies are those people who travel the land exchanging mercy killings for coin in order to alleviate suffering, both mental and physical, in those living in the harsh land. Only women can become Boneless Mercies, as men cannot do this dark and sad work.
While their roles as Mercies have provided this group of young women with an escape from the horrors or uncertainties of their previous lives, each of them, as well as their young male companion Trigve, seeks something different from this depressing routine of death dealing. Runa dreams of joining the Quicks, the bands of forest-dwelling hunters and revellers with mastery of the bow; the former Sea Witch Juniper wants to return to her sisters; while Ovie seeks companionship after the trials of her previous life. But their leader, Frey, wants something very different: fame and glory.
Hearing of a dangerous monster roaming in a far-off land, killing all the men and terrorising the landscape, the girls decide to change their fate and become heroes. In order to reach their destination, they first have to engage on a dangerous journey through a harsh countryside. First finding themselves caught up in the middle of a war between rival factions of witches, the Mercies find acceptance and camaraderie in the land they have come to save. But as the monster they’ve come to face makes an appearance, the girls must finally face up to their destinies. Will they be able to defeat a creature that so many have already died facing?
The Boneless Mercies is the fourth and latest book from dark fantasy young adult author April Genevieve Tucholke, whose previous works include the two books of the Between series, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Between the Spark and the Burn, as well as her 2016 standalone novel, Wink Poppy Midnight. All three of these previous novels dealt with a young adult supernatural romance set in a modern-day location. The Boneless Mercies is Tucholke’s first foray into her own fantasy world, and it is the first book that is not as focused on a major romantic subplot. The Boneless Mercies serves as a great standalone novel, although it has potential as the first book in a new series that either follows the characters introduced in this volume or that utilises Tucholke’s fantasy landscape.
The overall story of The Boneless Mercies is an interesting creation from Tucholke, as it is a good combination of character development, world building and searches for glory. The premise of this story is unique. Four professional mercy killers seeking better lives for themselves through fighting monsters is a fantastic pitch from the author that really drove me to read this story. The author has made a clear attempt to emulate the sagas of old, and it is easy to note its similarities to Beowulf, especially when it comes to the monster. The book’s central characters helped reinforce this by reciting several sagas that exist within their fantasy world, even coming up with a few verses for their own adventure. I was a bit surprised about how only the last third of the book focused on the protagonists’ hunt for the monster; the antagonist that was such a focus of the book’s blurb and publication material, and instead a lot more of the book was spent focusing on the adventure getting there.
This actually works out really well, with the characters’ involvement with the various witch characters serving as the centre of the book. The protagonists find themselves recruited to fight in a war between two rival factions of witches, which leads to some tough and damaging choices for Frey while the also allowing Tucholke to create a harrowing extended sequence in deadly marsh landscape. The reversal of gender roles within the story is another great part of the story, and it is intriguing to see women in a more central role of these saga storylines in both the protagonists and antagonist roles. The Boneless Mercies contains a unique and memorable central story that will prove to be appealing to a huge audience. With several exciting romps through Tucholke’s new fantasy landscape, the book has an excellent conclusion, as well as several plot threads that could lead to intriguing future stories in the same universe.
Tucholke has woven some wonderful character dynamics into this story and introduced several intriguing protagonists for the reader to enjoy. The book’s five main characters, Frey, Ovie, Juniper, Runa and Trigve, have all found an escape from their terrible past lives by coming together and following each other down the destructive path of the mercy killing trade. Each of the characters has their own distinctive traits. Frey is the big sister and reluctant leader of the group, and must struggle to balance her own desires with the needs of the people under her care. Runa is the rebellious and free-spirited member of the group, eager to live the carefree life of a Quick in order to escape the horrors of her past. Juniper is the dreamer, and her minor magical abilities and connection with the Sea Witches are essential to the plot in the middle of the book. Ovie is the tough, no-nonsense member of the group, and is the group’s main warrior, teaching the others how to fight. Despite some insights into her past, Ovie is the character who is explored the least out of each of the characters, although she does serve as a bit of a moral compass for Frey’s decision.
The main male character, Trigve is also an interesting inclusion, as he fills the role of the assistant and bastion of knowledge that the girls, especially Frey, go out of the way to protect. This is a noticeable and intriguing change in the traditional gender roles within an adventurer group, and it is interesting to note that Trigve is usually sent away by the girls before any of the big action scenes. His relationship with Frey is also one of the book’s main romantic subplots, and I liked the complex and mostly unspoken relationship these two characters had. Overall, all of these main characters are great additions to the book, and Tucholoke spends considerable time exploring how these characters, all of whom have been forced to sever their previous connections, have come together into a surrogate family. I really appreciated watching the characters’ relationships with each other build, as that worked really well to make the reader connect with each of them and become concerned with their fates. The slow reveal of each character’s previous lives and the events that drove them to the other Boneless Mercies was also handled wonderfully and worked with the other story elements to create a powerful overarching narrative.
I also enjoyed the great new fantasy world that Tucholke created for this novel. The author really gets to grips with the harsh, cold and unforgiving scenery of her Norse-inspired landscape of Vorseland, and the reader gets a real idea of why many inhabitants are tempted to employ the Boneless Mercies. There are also a number of fantastic elements included throughout this world that really help make it an amazing location for this intriguing adventure. The various bands of different fantasy professionals, such as the Boneless Mercies or the Quicks, give it an interesting flair. The various groups of witches, including Marsh Witches, Sea Witches and even a group of pig mystics, become deeply entangled in the main story, and will also be significant players in any future books set in this universe. This is an excellent and creative new fantasy world from Tucholke that works incredibly well for this book’s story.
April Tucholke has created an exciting and intense piece of young adult fiction in her latest novel, The Boneless Mercies. Creating an intriguing narrative around a group of female former mercy killers embarking on a quest for glory in a dark and saga-rich fantasy landscape is a masterstroke from Tucholke, especially when she combines it with a fantastic story and close-knit and likeable group of protagonists. The strong female characters make this an excellent one for a young adult audience, and I enjoyed the story’s darker background and storylines. Special appreciation goes to the book’s great covers as well; the copy I had an iridescent feather design which was cool, but I also really enjoyed the excellent cover with the red wolf and the protagonist’s shadows. Overall, The Boneless Mercies is a great piece of young adult fiction which presents the reader with something enjoyably different from the classic fantasy adventure.