The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Review

Title: The Mercies

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Picador

Publication Date: 7th February 2020

Rating: 5/5



On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves – the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.

Vardø is now a place of women.

Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place flooded with a terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs . . .


I am always drawn to books set in a time or place I know little about so when I saw that  The Mercies told the story of a remote Norwegian island full of women after the men are virtually wiped out by a terrible storm, I was immediately interested. The Mercies is a fictionalised account of true events involving witch trials in Vardø in the 17th century. It is a swirling mix of atmosphere, love, intensity, fear and feminism and I absolutely devoured it.

The Mercies is a slow burn of a book – at least at first. The story builds and builds at a clever and subtle pace until it reaches it’s incredibly emotional crescendo and I desperately didn’t want it to end. It is full of beautiful, lyrical prose which creates the perfect eerie and other worldly atmosphere for this story. This book is entirely about the women. It’s about the strength women can draw from one another but also the cruelty with which they can tear each other apart. The women of Vardø find themselves in a challenging and unusual situation but they find the strength to create and sustain a life for themselves in the wake of a tragedy. The rhythm they find is empowering which makes it all the more troubling when a man arrives to take charge and destroys the community they have created.

A commissioner from Scotland (a country famous for the sheer volume of it’s witch trials at the time) is recruited and arrives in Vardø with his new wife in tow. He sees darkness and sorcery in anything and anybody who doesn’t fit with his and the patriarchal system’s ideals. The Mercies really highlights the corrosive sexism of witch hunting and and also the duplicity of men like the commissioner who use fear and lies to benefit themselves and bolster their egos. There is a great deal of darkness in this story but there is also love. The relationship that slowly grows between Maren, a Vardø woman and Ursa, the commissioner’s naive but kindhearted new wife is beautifully nuanced and incredibly touching. It is a relationship full of small moments and touches which convey a deeper passion and it is the real heart of the novel. Overall, all I can say is that The Mercies is a gorgeously written book that I would recommend to anyone.


I received this e-arc through Netgalley. My review is my own honest opinion.

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