“Only fools want to be great. Only fools seek 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.
CW: assisted suicide, loss of a loved one, animal death, domestic abuse, child death, self-harm, nudity, graphic injury
Somehow, The Boneless Mercies was everything I expected it to be, and at the same time, nothing at all like I thought it it would be. And not in the most flattering way, either, to be entirely honest.
On the one hand, I think the book’s greatest strength lies in its world. There could have been more world-building (I wanted such a deeper sense of the creatures and people living there, and the sagas being referenced!), but as it was, it offers witches and a Norse-inspired land, along with giants and wolves, and the barest hint of subtle magics, the kind that simply look like skill with fire or good fortune.
It’s also a retelling of Beowulf, which is a pretty damn good piece of source material to revisit. I don’t know about you, but I do love a good piece of heroic lit, retold with female characters front and center, with a twist on how it goes. I wish I knew the original epic better (that might have improved the reading experience, come to think of it), but most of my exposure to Beowulf actually comes from the kiddie chapter book featuring Wishbone the dog, a book I reread so many times and now CAN’T FIND (tragic, I know).
And the characters! We have Frey, leader of the Boneless Mercies, glory-seeker and trailblazer. Runa, sharp and guarded, the master archer. Ovie, one-eyed and quiet and knowledgeable in the ways of weapons beyond the training most girls get. Juniper, the kindhearted Sea Witch with light fingers and magical prayers. Trigve, a boy who prefers life over death, healing over wounds. They all trust one another completely, and I loved all the scenes where they curled up in a pile to sleep. It was practical, for warmth, but it also showed just how trusting they are of one another in a way that made me smile.
That said, the characters are also where it fell apart. They have little dimension beyond what I’ve already described here, and besides Frey’s reckless search for glory and Runa wanting out of the death-trade Mercies reign over, I didn’t get a sense of purpose of depth from them. Ovie just went wherever the group did, and Juniper just waved her arms and prayed a lot. Trigve really didn’t do anything notable in the plot except heal a couple wounds and be an almost-love interest.
Basically, I didn’t get invested in any of the characters, so when the ultimate peril of the book came, when death came, I just shrugged and moved on.
I can’t blame that all on the characters, though, not when the plot was so thin. It’s one part journey narrative, one part monster-slaying narrative, and altogether, it sets up such grand fights, then offers short, weak fights to actually move the story onward. The tension was entirely unbalanced, and coupled with the shallow characters, it didn’t create any particular suspense or urgency worth getting emotionally invested in.
I also suppose I still have questions about the world, too. So many sagas are mentioned but left unexplored despite seeming like something that should maybe be more relevant, and on top of that, I still don’t get why the girls are called the BONELESS Mercies. Mercies I understand, since they only kill when asked to, when it’s agreed upon even by the person being killed. “Boneless,” though, makes zero sense, and rings too close to “spineless” for me to make heads or tails of it. It’s a frustrating observation that doesn’t have a ton to do with the course of the book, but it still bothers me.
Altogether, The Boneless Mercies wasn’t a bad book. It just wasn’t a great book, either. Thoroughly mediocre, I don’t think I’ll be rereading it, but I do think some folks might enjoy it as a quick read with some degree of Norse mythological flavor, not to mention the Beowulf backdrop.
Have you read The Boneless Mercies yet? If you have, what did you think of it? And if you haven’t, think you’ll try it, or is this not the book for you? Either way, let’s chat!