The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

I first ran across Beowulf at about four; a fantastically dark and gory version in Robert Nye’s book three tales. So, when an invocation of the god of random numbers landed on The Boneless Mercies, a version of the story featuring lady assassins, I was cautiously interested, particularly since I was in the mood for some epic battles and mythical monsters. As it happened, on this occasion the god of random numbers was obviously in a good mood, since I enjoyed The Boneless Mercies just as much as I’d enjoyed Robert Nye’s retelling all those years ago.

17 year old Frey is the leader of a group of Boneless Mercies. Their job is to travel across Vorseland, earning money by providing merciful deaths to the sick and old, never stopping in one place, never being remembered and always alone. Frey however, like her companions has had enough. There is no glory in the death trade, nor in a hand to mouth existence simply earning enough food to survive the long winter. Stopping at an inn they hear rumours of the Blue Vee beast, a giant decimating the people of a distant land, and the reward being offered for the beast’s death; a reward large enough to give them all a new start in life. Whilst many warriors have tried and failed to slay the beast, Frey and her companions are confident, after all they are Boneless Mercies, the unsung women warriors skilled in killing with stealth and quiet, and if they do die, at least it will mean an honourable death in battle and a place in song and story.

When I began The Boneless Mercies, I confess I thought I knew what I was getting. The first person style has almost become a cliché for YA novels, especially with usually tough, female protagonists.

Likewise Frey and her companions seemed cut from familiar moulds, Runa the angry girl, Juniper the gentle peace maker, and Ovie quiet with a tragic past. It wasn’t long however before I needed to change my expectations.

This began when I realised Tucholke’s writing style, despite a familiar perspective was both truly epic and surprisingly beautiful. Replete with descriptions of the natural world, details of Frey and her companions and a host of myths, sagas and rumours that take Vorseland far away from its rather obvious Norse analogue. Indeed, Tucholke has the rare gift of combining poetry with straightforward characterisation in a wonderfully evocative way. This can both make the book feel dreamlike, almost meditative, and yet at the same time deeply grounded in a very real time and place, making me care about tales of glory and deaths in battle whilst still giving me the idea that this was a world where people ate porridge for breakfast. I particularly liked the way that the magic in the world blended seamlessly with prayer and culture, and the feeling that I was in a world like middle earth where a blessing of good luck from a sea witch might just count for something, even if its results weren’t immediately obvious.

To go with the writing style, I also had to reassess the characters. Frey stands on that wonderful bridge between being both extremely tough and knowing what she wants, and yet young and optimistically impulsive. Runa (likely an homage to a certain other angry teenaged archer), though obviously the outspoken one of the group, is also the one who most wants to quit the death trade since she’s tired of dealing with old people willing to die and children with horrific diseases, and most desires a more carefree life. Juniper the sea witch was probably my favourite of the Mercies, being a gentle girl with a mystical bent, and an unapologetic kleptomaniac. The only one of the Mercies who disappointed slightly was Ovie, since for most of the book she remained quiet and aloof, indeed even when we learnt of her past it had little bearing on the rest of the plot. One character I particularly admired was Trigve, a boy skilled in healing who travels with the group, not the least because it’s great to see a writer (especially a female one), write a big guy who’s a scholar and healer rather than a bruiser, and for the most part the attraction between Trigve and Frey was described nicely.

Unfortunately, this brings me on to the issue of gender relations. Tucholke was very obviously here trying to write a story about awesome female warriors, indeed many reviews call The Boneless Mercies “a gender bent version of Beowulf”. This is definitely something I have sympathy for, always being a fan of going against traditional gender lines (another reason why I so much admired Trigve as a character). The way Tucholke presents her main characters and the friendship between them, as well as the continual emotional ware of the grim trade they practice and the isolation it causes is nothing short of exceptional. There are also some intriguing female villains (including the beast), and plenty of mentions of female warriors from mythical sagas whom Frey and the Mercies plan to emulate. The problem however is that Tucholke seemed to be shouting “hurray for women” a little too raucously. Literally all of the women we meet in the book are said to be awesome in some way, indeed it seems that Frey can’t pass a girl milking a cow without remarking on how “fierce” or “spirited” or “full of life” she was. There are no women who are simply a bit grumpy or bored, much less unpleasant, and whilst Frey does muse at one point over what being a “settled woman” living as a traditional wife and mother might be like, we rarely if ever see any.

Similarly, whilst I was pleased that Tucholke for the most part avoids misandry and includes a lot of likable male characters; Trigve being a primary example, at the same time there are moments where it seemed Tucholke was making her pro female point at the expense of logic. For example, though the Mercies usually only provide mercy killing for those who want to die, we’re told they’ll also happily knock off an unpleasant man or two by special request, and even hand over vials of poison to any girl who asks. On one occasion they find a young girl having been executed by hanging at a crossroads and automatically assume that “some brutes” have done this,” though for all we know she could’ve been Vorseland’s Lizzie Borden. Just after witnessing this hanging, Tucholke (presumably in need of an action sequence), has one woman die in a noble sacrifice, refusing to let a twelve year old boy skilled in archery shoot down a bunch of thugs with his arrows, because “this isn’t his path,” even though had he done so he might have avoided the woman’s death.

Later when we meet a community of sea witches, it’s a little convenient that they have few male births and that the sailors who sire children never want to stay with them, thus leaving them a semi utopian female only commune, albeit one with wonderfully described magic and a truly freaky hedge of thorns as a defence against the outside world. I also did wince when one character, towards the end of the book remarks that “the time of monsters and of men is over” just before inaugurating a women only army, because most of the men ran away from the beast and left their women and children at home.

That being said, the world Tucholke creates is truly fascinating and we get to wander across a large part of it, complete with views of Erie and fantastical landscapes, such as The Scorch Trees of the Sea Witches, and The Red Willow Marsh, the domain of a group of wonderfully disturbing female cultists. We even hear of the Quicks, forest dwelling men (and occasionally women), who Robin Hood their way through the woodlands living a wild life.

Unfortunately, whilst the journey is executed extremely well, some of the actual events along the way fell a little more flat. A rather obvious sub-quest the Mercies are given, which involves confronting a fantastically nasty villain ends up as a complete anti-climax, and one which made me question the rationality of said villain, much less the minions who are stupid enough to follow her. Whilst I assume she has been left for the sequel, there is no denying I was disappointed, especially given the build-up the villain had.

Many reviewers seemed to object to the fact that the beast did not show up until the seventh hour of an eight hour narrative. Myself however, I was more than content for this to be about the journey rather than the destination, particularly if this is intended as the first book in a series. Indeed, I liked the fact that the eventual fight against the beast was just a good old fashioned fantasy battle, albeit Tucholke is careful enough to give us a little sympathy the beast along the way.

Despite the characters being extremely likable, actual progression also suffered a few problems. Tucholke mentions, with her usual poetry a large amount of freely shared canoodling, both among the four girls, and with Trigve. These group cuddles also include other characters who we meet later (indeed I was pleased that there seemed to be no gender boundaries to this). The problem however, is that the constant cuddling was so pervasive, it was rather difficult to tell where friendly affection stopped and attraction began. At the start of the book, for example, with Frey making a point of mentioning the smell of Ovie’s hair and the sound of her breathing more distinctly from the other girls, I assumed that Frey and Ovie were lovers. Then, when Tucholke draws attention to the ways Frey and Trigve touch each other, and how Frey was the one who had Trigve travel with them against the usual custom of Boneless Mercies, I assumed Frey and Trigve were together. However, later on, Frey meets another good man and spends the night with him, still declaring herself “companion to Trigve.” This not only confused Frey’s romantic relations, but also the general direction of the plot. Whilst Runa’s story came to a definite end and Juniper’s at least clearly moved on; Ovie’s, Trigve’s and to an extent even Frey’s were just left hanging, though again as apparently we have a sequel on the horizon I hope we’ll see more resolution the future, particularly given that thus far we’ve only covered the first part of Beowulf.

In general The Boneless Mercies was a fantastic story. A beautiful and poetic writing style, a captivating world and some truly unforgettable characters, only slightly dimmed by an at times illogically fervent agender, and so many randomly awesome women that sometimes the awesomeness began to run a bit thin.

Still, if you’re a fan of epic fantasy in the truest sense of the word and like the idea of a bit of good old fashioned beast bashing, then it’s definitely time to hunt some giant.

8/10 Changing career just means one giant problem

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