REVIEW: The Boneless Mercies – April Genevieve Tucholke

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Author: April Genevieve Tucholke (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Genre: YA, fantasy

Release date: 4th October 2018

Buy: ebook | paperback

Frey, Ovie, Juniper, and Runa are the Boneless Mercies–girls hired to kill quickly, quietly, and mercifully. But Frey is weary of the death trade and, having been raised on the heroic sagas of her people, dreams of a bigger life.

When she hears of an unstoppable monster ravaging a nearby town, Frey decides this is the Mercies’ one chance out. The fame and fortune of bringing down such a beast would ensure a new future for all the Mercies. In fact, her actions may change the story arc of women everywhere.

The ARC for this book came as a bonus book in my June Book Box Club box, and it was a very pretty proof with gorgeous foiling and a brilliant choice of cover text. The concept grabbed me immediately, although I misunderstood it – I had assumed a group of mercenary women, which they are to a point, but I was thinking the more traditional idea of mercenary. Instead, I was presented with a group of women who do specifically mercy-killings for hire – on the terminally ill, the old, and those who just have had enough of living.

The pacing on this book is interesting – the girls decide they have had enough of being Mercies, and decide to go make their fortune fighting the beast that has been terrifying the kingdom of Blue Vee. In any other book, the time in Blue Vee would be the bulk of the story, anything before that would be merely preparatory, and glossed over to speed up the action. This is perhaps the most unique and wonderful part of The Boneless Mercies.

In every sense of the world, this is a Nordic or Old English heroic epic, in the vein of Beowulf – except unlike Beowulf there are female characters who have actual lines and names. The setting is clearly old Scandinavia, and the practices and cultural tics are identifiable as Viking. And whilst the language is modern, and the characters are for today’s readers, this is a Viking epic, of heroes and monsters.

The reason I invoke Beowulf is largely because of the story structure. Film incarnations of the poem often tend to place a lot of emphasis on Grendel, but that is only the first of three acts really – Grendel, Grendel’s Mother and the Dragon. Each is given equal weighting, equal language, and thus the story is a split of three pieces. So is the case for The Boneless Mercies. The monster in Blue Vee is only the last part of the book – the journey is split into three, each weighted as importantly in the narrative as the last, and the ones that follow. This is even clearly signposted, with new title pages inserted for each new part. For a modern story, this is an interesting narrative choice – readers are so used to getting the introduction, the build up to the climax with a continual ramping of tension until the climax, and then the denouement which resolves it all neatly. The Boneless Mercies doesn’t have that slow, consistent ramping of tension. Each section provides its own particular climax, and its own particular denouement. Yes, the section in Blue Vee does up the ante in terms of risk and reward, but the rise in tension feels comparatively small, as it is only building up from the start of that section.

This is not to say the pacing is bad, in fact I think it’s pretty perfect and unique. I haven’t read a contemporary book like it. Instead of continually increasing the tension to one final incident, the story is almost ‘stepped’. The first section has the lowest risk, and so the lowest reward, then the next is higher, and then the next higher still. But, almost like a video game, as the characters level up after each encounter, so they are ready to take on the task presented in the next stage, and the reader senses that. Or, well, I did anyway.

I wouldn’t say this is a book I couldn’t put down, or necessarily that it was one that I was racing to pick up again as soon as possible. But when I was reading it, I fell into the rhythm of the story easily – just like the old epic poems, which had their own set pace and rhythm to the telling – and it flowed well within that. It took me a little while to realise it, but once I did I was utterly enchanted. This is the Viking Epic for the current age, and I think there’s potential for more stories within this world. I hope they are just the same, additional choruses to this brand new song.

Briefly:

  • A cast of capable, well-developed female characters, supporting each other and kicking ass in their own ways.
  • Evokes such a strong feeling of the Viking legends and Old English heroic epics that was so unexpected for a contemporary YA novel, and delighted me utterly.
  • It’s a fast read but not necessarily one that pulls you along. You have to work a little to keep reading, but the rhythms of the story are delightful and if you are familiar with Beowulf then you may enjoy this.
  • No rape!! Not once in a whole book that I can remember, with threats bandied everywhere, and a cast of almost entirely women, is rape or sexual assault waved as a threat. What a blessed relief.

Rating: 4/5 – as I mentioned, it wasn’t a book I couldn’t put down, but there is something genuinely special about it and I would recommend it wholeheartedly as something different and a new approach to an old style.

The Boneless Mercies is out on 4th October 2018.

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