Book Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies…

About the Book:

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.

Now the women must fend for themselves.

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 untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.

My Thoughts:

At the end of this incredible novel is an historical note from the author. There are two things I want to share from this section of the book, and the first is this:

‘This story is about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.’ – Historical note.

When I read this, just moments after finishing the novel, I thought: “Yes! This is exactly what this story was like.” And this was one of the things I loved the most about it. As a reader, you were entirely immersed into the daily lives of these women within this remote 17th century Norwegian setting. This is exactly the type of historical fiction I appreciate the most. Complete transportation to another time and place, where the history takes on its own presence within the story, enlightening the reader to things they might never have heard of before. Which brings me to the second thing I want to share with you from the historical note:

‘Lensmann Cunningham, or Køning as he came to be known, oversaw no fewer than fifty-two witch trials, leading to the deaths of ninety-one people: fourteen men and seventy-seven women. But Cunningham had gone further than the King had planned: of these, the men were all Sami, but the women were Norwegian. In a region where there had previously been only a handful of such cases, and only two resulting in executions, it was a stark and telling change.’ – Historical note.

This is definitely a history I knew nothing about prior to reading this novel. How horrifying those numbers are. How fanatical. Within this story, we’re given flesh and blood women to mourn over. These women were not supernatural, they were independent and free thinking, therefore a threat. They were arrested without any cause other than by the finger pointing of jealous neighbours. They were starved and tortured until they confessed to whatever was charged, simply to make it all stop. Then they were burned alive. There was evil afoot, but it wasn’t on the part of the women.

‘We did not know. We did not know, and now see what we have done…Oh, God have mercy on us. We have begun it, and cannot end it.’

The Mercies is also an empowering story of female friendship, of love, and of loyalty in amongst a community heaving with betrayal. The entire story crackles with atmosphere and the setting is so authentically crafted. The Mercies is nothing short of brilliant and I loved every word of it.


Thanks is extended to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a copy of The Mercies for review.

About the Author:

Kiran Millwood Hargrave (b. 1990) is an award-winning poet, playwright, and novelist. Her bestselling works for children include The Girl of Ink & Stars, and have won numerous awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year, and the Blackwell’s Children’s Book of the Year, and been shortlisted for prizes such as the Costa Children’s Book Award and the Blue Peter Best Story Award. The Mercies is her first novel for adults. Kiran lives by the river in Oxford, with her husband, artist Tom de Freston, and their rescue cat, Luna.

The Mercies
Published by Picador
Released 28th January 2020

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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