Cover Image: The Mercies

The Mercies

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Extremely, wildly bleak. Beautiful, occasionally, but very bleak. I suppose that’s what I get for reading a novel based on witch trials. Still, the lurking dread over all of it was hard to power through. And of course the queer love story which only flared up into anything reciprocated or pleasurable for a single night before everything came crashing down - which, like, sure, ok, justifiable for the setting but also cliche.
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I loved this book. The setting was well-drawn — clearly a lot of research went into the writing, but it never felt heavy-handed. The tension between religion and women wanting to make their own choices built well, to a conclusion that felt surprising and yet inevitable. I'll be thinking about these characters and this story for a long time.
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Christmas  Eve 1617, a powerful storm hit the remote region of Norway, causing 40 men to drown in a lake. Authorities believed that witchcraft was behind the incident. In response, a wave of trials was held in the village.
The novel begins with a young woman named Maren Magnusdatter describing the moment she felt a storm coming in. Erik and Maren's father, Dag, are killed in the storm. The women, who had buried their dead, are left to fend for themselves. There is also Toril Knudsdatter, who is a stern, churchgoing, kirke-woman. The local legal authority has invited Commissioner Absalom Cornet, a skilled witch hunter, to Finnmark. This book was very much enjoyable. Thank you, Little brown for the gifted copy via Netgalley.
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Thank you to Little, Brown and Company for the copy of this ebook.

This book is historical fiction based on actual events in the 1600s in Vardo, Norway.  The descriptions drew me in and made me realize I could never have survived living in that time or that location, especially as a woman.    The characters are well developed, and the writing just flows that it was difficult for me to put it down.  While the ending was predictable, it did not take anything away from the story.  It’s hard to believe that women are still being mistreated over 400 years later, especially if they are outsiders.  And heaven forbid if a woman acts like she can do what a man can do.
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In the early 1600s, the women of Vardo, a remote northern village, watch as a sudden storm kills all of their menfolk at sea. While engulfed in grief for their loved ones, these women step up to feed themselves and lead their community to survival. We follow this community of women through young Maren's eyes. A few years later, we meet Ursa, a young woman from a southern city married off by her father to Absalom Cornet, a Scot who has been assigned to root out witchcraft in Vardo, unbeknownst to Ursa. The story really picks up when Maren and Ursa meet, form a closeness, and are thrust into danger at the hands of Absalom and other women in the village.

I'm a sucker for any book that's full of strong women and shitty men - even if every page brings increasing rage at the aforementioned men. It was easy to love Maren, who despite her grief after losing her brother, father, and fiance, is fully capable of surviving - and thriving! - on her own. It's a bit more difficult to love Ursa, who we can certainly empathize with, given the abusive situation she is put in that is impossible to escape. However, I did get some uncomfortable "I just didn't know" vibes that has been used so often throughout history (and the present) to justify inaction. Sure, her husband doesn't tell her that he's a witch hunter, but she is given so many moments and opportunities to say or do something, and instead she is constantly portrayed as a helpless victim. Of course her situation is difficult and dangerous itself, but I wanted to see more depth to her character rather than this helpless obliviousness. 

I learned SO MUCH about this place and time in history. I had no idea people even lived this far north (look up the locations on a map!) It's clear that the author did extensive research and to create this fictional account based on real events. It's a bit long, but I think it's important to get the picture of everyday life before the witch hunt uproots it all. The atmospheric writing really grounds you in every scene - I could FEEL the icy chill in the winter air - and I didn't mind the length of the book at all because I was so immersed in it.

I also listened to this on audio and the narrator was FANTASTIC. Highly recommend the audio format if you're going to read it!
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The Mercies is a vivid stories inspired by a true event.  It's creative and immersive. The writing is fantastic and it held my attention from beginning to end.
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Witch hunt/trial books are hard to read. The strong, stand-out characters that you want to root for always get accused BECAUSE they are strong and go against the current norm. The Mercies did a great job of building tension and especially dread. There were several sentences where my stomach sunk and my heart squeezed. Maren and Ursa were great characters who were almost instantly likeable and relatable and I wanted them to have all the best. There were times that I felt the prose held me at arm's length and refused to let me really get close to the characters, but after reading the entirety of the novel I think that was done on purpose.  The ending was good, but due to the nature of what needed to happen, felt very unsatisfying. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this one and have thought about it for days after finishing. AND THE COVER IS JUST SO STUNNING. <3
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“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgement with a human tongue.”

In a remote settlement in Vardo, Norway in 1617, a storm destroys the lives of all the men in the small fishing community. Eighteen months after learning to provide for themselves, Absalom Cornet arrives to share the word of God with the women and save them from themselves, and their possible witchcraft. Maren, a Vardo native, and Absalom’s wife Ursa, form a friendship despite their backgrounds and world views. 

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, has some of the most lush descriptions of setting, clothing, architecture, and food that I’ve ever read. My favorite part of the novel really was the incredible atmosphere which was foggy and eerie. Thematically, you can’t beat women coming together and making it work, forming unbreakable bonds and friendships, and building community against the odds of their traditional patriarchal society. 

This book is a must for readers of historical fiction. 

Thank you to NetGalley and Picador for the opportunity to read and review this e-copy.
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The description of this book sounded so epic but unfortunately I found it very confusing and hard to follow. I never knew what was happening.
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I really enjoyed reading this book!  Its a perfect combination of historical fiction, historical non-fiction, witches, Scandinavian culture and life, and Sapphic ideals and feelings.  The story is a bit slow in the beginning, but once things start to happen in the story the pacing really speeds up and will leave you breathless at the end.
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📚The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave 📚⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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In a remote area of Norway on Christmas Eve 1617, forty men, all the men from the small fishing village, die at sea in a sudden storm. Afterwards, the women need to learn to fish and take care of all the tasks in the village the men did, as well as their own. A few years later, a man from Scotland is tasked with traveling to the village as the new commissioner, with his new Norwegian wife from Bergen.
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Ursa is the wife, and finds solace and comfort from her loveless marriage in Maren, a village woman who fiancé was killed in the storm. Absalom, Ursa’s husband, turns out to be a witch hunter, and fear, distrust and accusations soon terrorize the village. .
This book is so wonderfully written, I was totally immersed in the story and got to know this harsh and unforgiving place. It’s also based on a true story, which makes it truly harrowing to read sometimes.
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This is an excellent book, with a truly stunning cover (I don’t judge a book by it’s cover, but this one is amazing!)
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This book is set on a small, remote island in Finnmark, Norway in 1617. It opens with one of our main characters, Maren, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with all the other women in her village. Together, they stare, transfixed, horrified, at a violent storm that erupts so suddenly, in the following years people will say that it came in like a finger snap. But that doesn’t really do it justice.

“And then the sea rises up and the sky swings down and greenish lightning slings itself across everything, flashing the black into an instantaneous, terrible brightness.”


Their small village on the island of Vardø is ruled by the sea. Every adult male was out on their fishing boats when the storm crashed in. None of them survived, and the women are left to fend for themselves as winter rolls in.

I cannot tell you the dread I felt while reading the opening of this book. Vardø is north of the arctic circle. It’s so harsh that trees don’t grow there, and during the depth of the winter, the townspeople live in a world of eternal darkness.

This is 1617. Gender roles are treated almost like unwritten laws. Women aren’t supposed to fish, and many would think it better that the whole village starve to death than for them to fend for themselves without men.

Even some of the women believe this.

As the surviving villagers cling to life, factions begin to emerge. On one side are the Kirke (Church) women, good, godly Christians. On the other are those who would risk everything to stay alive.

A new minister is sent to them in the months following the loss of their men, and his arrival only deepens the divide in the village. Thinking that he’s helping, he writes to the local lensmann (a sort of feudal sheriff meets overseer of fiefdoms in Norway at the time), asking for aid.

In answer, the lensmann sends a man named Absalom Cornet. His wife, Ursula, is the other main character in this story, and through her we slowly get the measure of Absalom. From the first time you meet him, you distrust him. His casual, violent misuse of his wife will quickly deepen that distrust to disgust, but with each passing chapter, that disgust will morph into a dark, burning hatred.

He’s something of a rockstar in this world, because in his home country of Scotland, he was a revered witch hunter. Most Americans think of Salem when the phrase “witch trial” is thrown about, but what they don’t realize is that the fanaticism about burning women at the stake came over from Europe.

Scotland saw it’s own terrors. England too. The fear and stigma and persecution even extended to tiny, remote islands in Norway. Like Vardø.

While this is a work of historical fiction, it’s based on real events. Up until this point, most of the people charged with witchcraft in Norway were men of the native population, the Sámi. The king intentionally targeted them in what can only be described as a thinly veiled ethnic cleansing. And then he imported a bunch of witch hunters from western Europe, and they brought their misogyny with them.

When you add a man like Cornet to a village full of women that are already divided, each side disliking and distrusting the other, a bad situation quickly goes from uncomfortable to dangerous.

“She had thought she had seen the worst from this harbour, thought nothing could rival the viciousness of the storm. But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgment with a human tongue.”


The religious zealotry became palpable after his arrival, with the worst sort of internalized misogyny erupting not long after. Any woman not conforming to “womanly” or “godly” behavior ran the risk of standing accused of witchcraft, and the fervor of the accusers was both spectacular and terrifying to witness. It brought to mind the description of the storm. Like a finger snap. That’s how quickly everything can change. That’s how close to the edge everyone is living when their neighbor could turn on them for something as small as a dirty look.

What was almost as hard to read was this underlying awareness of the danger of men. They held near-absolute power over women during this time period, and reading about how helpless their wives and subjects were made my skin crawl.

So, no, this book isn’t easy to read, but it’s definitely worth reading. Maren and Ursula, as two of the few women able to see with eyes wide open what is happening around them, cling to each other and their sanity. Their close friendship slowly develops over the course of this book into something more, something neither of them can define.

On that note, while this book has a lot of darkness in it, there is also a lot of light. Messages about love and forgiveness and kindness and empathy can be found in each chapter, a sort of ballast against the fear and hatred. A reminder that even in times of upheaval and turmoil, it’s still possible for good to triumph over evil.

I’m happy to say that it does in this book, and it is so cathartic in the way it plays out that I can easily see myself reading this again and again in the years to come.
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The year is 1617 in Finnmark, Norway, and a sudden storm has come out of nowhere and killed all the men of the village of Vardo as they headed out on a fishing expedition. Now the only citizens left are mostly women, children, and the elderly, along with the village cleric. Our main character, Maren, along with the rest of the women need to learn how to survive without their husbands, fathers, and brothers, and so they take up their responsibilities in their sudden absence. The women seem to be settling into their new normal until the day the new comissioner, Absalom Cornet, arrives to take a census and root out the evils among them. He brings with him his new wife, Ursa, who finds her husband's occupation and power over others to be disturbing and horrific, particularly when she learns about his previous involvement in the arrests and punishments of "witches" in other villages. Ursa finds friendship and comfort in Maren, as they both navigate the hardships of living under the watchful and critical eye of Ursa's husband.

The strong sense of place and foreboding in this book serve to set the backdrop for the bleak turns of events that occur in the story. The story starts with a whale that has washed up on shore and dies a slow painful death as the villagers come and hack away pieces of it as the whale endures the pain in silent anguish. Maren sees this as an ominous sign from the sea and knows that trouble will find her and her people for what they've done.  This sense of foreboding builds and builds as the story progresses, keeping the pages turning, as you desperately hope that there will be a happy ending for these women who have already lost so much. I read the last half of this book with my heart in my chest and a righteous anger for the plight of the main characters.
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Inspired from the true events of a freak storm that wiped out all of the men in a small village off the coast of Norway in the 1600s, this is the story about the women who were left to survive and the dangers they faced thereafter.

There’s lots to love, especially the history that Hargrove relies on to tell the tale. I’m not very experienced in Norway and it’s history, so I was more than interested to learn about life in during that time as well as the perceptions about indigenous Sámi and witchcraft.

Be sure to know that this is a grim tale, dark and painful even as a tender romance unfolds between two of the women. But the characters themselves were wonderful as well. I especially loved Kirsten!

I would recommend this to anyone looking for an interesting piece of historical fiction that is beautifully told. It wouldn’t hurt if you had a penchant for witchcraft as well.
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I have read a lot more historical fiction than usual lately and I've found that I like when it gives a modern spin on things or opens up something I didn't know about before. In some ways, THE MERCIES should work for me because it's looking at a slice of history I didn't know about before: the Vardø Witch Trials in the early 1600's.

At first, I was interested and felt a lot of momentum, but it faded as this turned into the kind of story I had seen many times before, watching a community turn against itself and accuse members of witchcraft. There is still a lot of possibility here, and Hargrave has some great prose and character development so she's up to the task, ultimately though I didn't love it as much by the time I reached the very-rushed ending. When I tried to put my finger on what didn't work, it came down to a question of whose story is more interesting. We follow Maren and Ursa, and as much as they were quite different from each other and I enjoyed learning about this world through their eyes, the characters around them were much more interesting. Diinaa, Maren's sister-in-law who is from the indigenous Sámi people, viewed as suspicious pagans by the heavily Christian Norwegians, all alone with her new baby after the death of her husband. Kirsten, who responds to the death of the men of the town by taking on their roles herself, wearing pants and putting out the fish nets. Even the women who start accusing their former friends are mostly a mystery to us but there's so much to consider there. As lovely as Maren and Ursa are, as central as they are to the story, they are mostly observers.

If you want a twist on the story you've heard from Salem, this may be just what you're looking for, since the setting is a big part of the story and vastly different.
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Let me start by saying, this is not a negative review... Have you ever walked into a book with preconceived notions concerning the main plot of the story? I try very hard not to do that but it happens with The Mercies by Kiran Milwood Hargrave. I was under the impression this was about the witch hunts in Norway but it was about the community of women that were ‘hunted’ for getting by without their men after a tragic storm. While, I would have enjoyed the flow of the story of these women far more had I not been waiting for the ‘action’ to start, so to speak, I did still really enjoy this story. The main character, Maren, and secondary character, Ursa, really stole the show for me in the last half. I also really loved Hargrave’s exploration of women’s place in society and how the absence of men affected their roles. My heart ached for these women just trying to carrying on with their lives and being persecuted for it.  If you are anything like me and did not even know Norway had their own witch trials and would like an introduction to them, or are just a fan of historical fiction, I highly recommend picking up a copy of The Mercies.
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When 20-year-old Maren Magnusdatter’s brother and father—along with the 38 other fishermen of Vardø, the small Norwegian village where they live—are killed in a sudden storm at sea in 1617, she and the other women of the town must learn to survive on their own and rebuild their community. They are doing both quite well when, three years later, a new threat arrives in the person of Scottish witch hunter Absalom Cornet and his young Norwegian wife, Ursa. Maren and Ursa become friends, but their relationship is dangerous with Absalom now in control of Vardø—and seeing evil in everything around him.

“The Mercies” is based on the witch trials which occurred in 1621 in a remote part of Norway, a story which I had never heard of and was amazed to find is still so relevant today. I was particularly interested to learn about the influence of the Scottish witch trials and witchcraft laws on Norway. I found Maren to be a slightly more compelling character than Ursa (and I thought Ursa was a stronger character in the chapters before she met Maren than later in the novel), but I was quickly invested in both of their fates and sympathized with their individual struggles. An interesting look at how a group of people can band together and find new ways of surviving after a terrible tragedy, and how that newfound society can fall apart just as quickly.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an ARC of this title in exchange for my honest review.
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I will admit that it took me a little bit of time to get into this book. But, once I got past the first five chapters or so, it was hard to put down and I plowed right through it. Such a great read! I l can tell that the author really did the heavy hitting research required to write a story like this and I really enjoyed reading it. Highly recommend!
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Slow start on this very unusual novel....beginning on the beach with the eye of a whale and then to a city.  Women from diverse, desolate backgrounds come together during the little known witch hunts of 16th century Norway.  Once I truly began reading, I could not put it down.  So atmospheric.  I'm looking for the other books by Hargrave.
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This one was an interesting read!

It was very well written and transported you into the world effortlessly. I love the female leads and how the story unfolded. I can't believe this was based on true events! I need to brush up on my Norwegian 17th century history apparently. 

Overall, an excellent and unique historical fiction!
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