Novel: The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke | Goodreads
Release Date: October 2, 2018
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR)
A dark standalone YA fantasy about a band of mercenary girls in search of female glory.
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.
Boneless Mercies was a great read although I’ll admit that I took about a month-long break from it. Part of that could be due to the fact that it’s a winter-oriented book, with imagery that I’m sure would be remarkable for a snowy day. It has a lot of Norse heart in it. Talks of glory and nights asleep by the fire wrapped in furs. Drinking ales in heavy mugs. It’s perfect for now that it’s December and my reading taste errs towards heavy fantasy and lush storyworlds.
Part of the success of the read is because of the pairing of myth and writer. April Genevieve Tucholke’s skill always shines through her sensory descriptions, like in settings and with food. It makes it an enormously evocative experience.
She also takes a solid amount of pages to set up concepts, because she tends to be a slow writer. Bits of groups like the Sea Witches and the Cut Queen and the Pigs. Although it’s technically a standalone, it doesn’t feel like one — it feels like an immersion into a world that could sustain another book, and had just enough loose ends to make me crave one! It’s nearly impossible to tell whether threads are dropped for some other purpose or just for brevity of her writing style.
First up is the Mercies. A ragtag group of killers — not like assassins, but like euthanization. They hear of the old and the sick, and track them down. Some villages and people are wary of them, with their thick black cloaks and thorough knowledge of poisons. But they rarely carry out vengeance kills — and remember each one they perform. The ritual of their killing was well-developed, and fit with the atmosphere: a society with lots of rules and lores.
Frey, our protagonist, hungers for more than their quiet and thankless existence. She loves that they have purpose, but begins to long for being a warrior and dining in Holhalla. Having glory. I love ambitious characters, especially when they make no secret of what they want. Her brazenness was excellent; Frey had no nobler intentions than to be memorable. At the same time, she didn’t particularly feel like a very fleshed out character because all she cared about was glory, for no real purpose. There didn’t feel like a lot there (although I did like her.)
The rest of her squad was an assortment of girls and desires. Some of them blended together. April Genevieve Tucholke had a tendency to dump out their backstories in one fell swoop, so characters didn’t feel as fully formed as they could have been. But it served their purpose. There was also an odd romance thread that didn’t really go anywhere, but this is a book about “female glory” and not any mention of romance, so that’s alright.
The beginning of Boneless Mercies is all set up — the girls wandering through various territories seeking work. Their individual existence was well-developed. The afterlife they believed in, their avoidance of bliss houses, the snow sickness. Again, world-building is SUCH a strength of this writer.
The middle was slow for me and so I put it down for a while. Part of that was because I was reading it in the sweltering summertime heat, and I needed a bit of a faster pace for laying out in the sun. I tend to read winter books when I’m at the lake because nights on the island are dark and cozy. But we had a stretch of good weather for a while, so The Boneless Mercies didn’t fit.
When I got home, though, I picked it back up. Towards the end, it started really picking up. Once the Mercies started encountering their witches and monsters, it became more exciting and the vagueness of chasing glory started to sharpen more. This book feels like it’s made up of short little vignettes, as is typical with April Genevieve Tucholke’s quest-like style. It works because she is capable of being neat with it, and she follows the ballad.
As a whole, I did enjoy The Boneless Mercies although I definitely felt the need to be in the right mood to read it. I love April Genevieve Tucholke’s knack for atmosphere, and it carries over so well for high fantasy. This one, in particular, is a short glimpse at a completely distinctive storyworld, full of references that the reader doesn’t understand and lots of potential for more mythic exploration. Because of this quality, it feels a little unfinished or flat because it stays focused on the immediate story. But the style of the prose is sparse and moody, which works. I enjoyed the main characters, and they were almost exclusively focused on glory.
Although the plot is great, the slowness and myth really just amplifies the atmosphere, which is phenomenal for winter. Lots of furs and roaring fires and hot food (described so well) while the snow pours down outside. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to super conventional readers because it does take effort to keep your attention focused on it, but if you love Beowulf or settings or powerful feminist narratives then go for it.