Set in an alternate Scandinavia, The Boneless Mercies has been touted as a gender-swapped quest fantasy loosely based on Beowulf. But given it’s a loose reinterpretation and the original may not be familiar to many YA readers, let’s leave that aside, because The Boneless Mercies exists very much as its own unique narrative, set in its own unique world and with its own intriguing cast of female characters. Beowulf was very much a man’s story—its female characters were either monsters or trophies. But here, Tucholke ensures that her female characters are everything: heroes, killers, witches, leaders, lovers, warriors. And yes, even beasts.
Young women who belong nowhere else band together to form the Boneless Mercies, a group who are hired for mercy killing—whether it be for a terminally ill loved one, or an abusive partner, or even, at times, an assisted suicide. The women travel across Vorseland, living off whatever little they can make, often sleeping rough and never a part of mainstream society. But they are a tightly knit, supportive group, who fall asleep together in heaps like puppies, share whatever food they have, divide their work equally, easily. It’s a strange life, and it’s the one they know but not the one they want anymore.
The story is told in the first person by Frey, the leader and most ambitious of the Mercies. She often makes references to the heroic Vorse sagas of her childhood, stories she’s heard and is enamoured by. It’s clear that she desires to be more than a mercy killer, is bored of the lives the Mercies lead, and aspires to more adventure, more action, more life than the death trade offers. Though her mentor had insisted “only fools want to be great. Only fools seek glory,” Frey cannot settle for the sad, slow nomadic life of the Mercies, proclaiming that though she maybe just another nameless Mercy girl, her “blood [sings] of glory.” She admits that she enjoys dealing out death to those who deserve it most, though the young women are not meant to enjoy the mercy killings they commit: “but the daughter-beaters, the wife-beaters, the ones who were cruel to animals, the ones who were brutal and selfish and hard … I liked killing them. I took pleasure in it.”
And so the Mercies, driven by Frey, decide to set aside their death trade and hunt out the monster of Blue Vee, a massive fearsome beast that has been ravaging the area, so that they may earn the reward offered and use it to live whatever new lives they want to now lead. On their way to the valley where the Blue Vee beast has almost entirely destroyed a jarldom, the Mercies must navigate a few other obstacles, arm themselves with weapons greater than their small mercy daggers, and gather as much information as they can to help their hunt. From being silent death dealers upon request, they must become the aggressive warriors and hunters they never have been before. In doing so, they also find out who they are, and what they truly want.
What slows down this story on occasion is the fact that many parts of the plot feel like a set up for a bigger arc, something to be taken up again in another book. That, of course, is how epic multi-book fantasies work, but in this case it just feels a little stilted. One subplot that requires the Mercies to complete a smaller quest before they can attempt to hunt down the Blue Vee beast is clearly part of a larger story that exists outside of this book but comes across here as entirely unsatisfying. It feels rushed, much too easily accomplished and vaguely unsatisfactory. It does, however, leave the reader wanting to know more, which is probably the point. A subplot including a cult like coven lead by a child queen who self flagellates to garner her magic is a terrifying idea, and one that may have deserved a little more page time.
Frey’s voice is steady and lyrical, as befitting a Norse epic. It can be a little too stoic at times, which is surprising for a 17-year-old (though perhaps not a “Vorse” teen who confesses that she is not a crier?), but then again, these young women are wise beyond their years. The Boneless Mercies has a strong microcosmos at play, the world building is succinct and earthy, not so vast or sprawling that a reader may lose sight of the landscape entirely. This is a lovingly written epic with heart, one that does not remove the human element from the heroic. Frey and her girl gang are fierce, ambitious and know that to have purpose is everything. They know that “nothing is simple … Not quests, not heroes, not beasts, not glory,” but that won’t stop them.
The Boneless Mercies is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.