The Mercies

The Mercies is a dread-soaked retelling of real events. Kiran Millwood Hargrave (The Girl of Ink and Stars) makes her adult debut with a historical novel based on calamitous events at the far-flung town of Vardø in northern Norway. In 1617, a storm surprises 40 fishermen at sea, killing the majority of the town's male population. The women are left to fend for themselves, the harshness of their situation demanding that they put aside their grief and fulfill roles typically reserved for men if they want to survive.

One protagonist is Maren, a young woman who loses as much as anyone else in the storm: a brother, father and her husband-to-be. When the town divides after the storm, she finds herself drawn to Kirsten, who confidently flouts gender norms. The town's remoteness has offered a degree of freedom to the women there, a freedom that will soon be challenged by the arrival of commissioner--and witch-hunter--Absalom Cornet. His arrival represents an assertion of state and church authority over what Absalom sees as a wild, devilish place.

Absalom brings his new wife, Ursa, who is unprepared for the harshness of Vardø. The Mercies is, in part, about how repression and power imbalances function at different levels. Ursa's experience of marriage is a painful one, but she finds small pockets of freedom where she can, including in an increasingly intimate relationship with Maren. For all the novel's outer grimness, it finds a warm heart in the relationship between Maren and Ursa. By the novel's bloody end, they are the only spark of hope left. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

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