2020 Reviews · historical fiction

Book Review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Title: The Mercies

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Published: January 28th 2020

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Pages: 256

Genres:  Fiction, Historical

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 4 stars

On Christmas Eve, 1617, the sea around the remote Norwegian island of Vardø is thrown into a reckless storm. As Maren Magnusdatter watches, forty fishermen, including her father and brother, are lost to the waves, the menfolk of Vardø wiped out in an instant.

Now the women must fend for themselves.

Eighteen months later, a sinister figure arrives. Summoned from Scotland to take control of a place at the edge of the civilized world, Absalom Cornet knows what he needs to do to bring the women of Vardø to heel. With him travels his young wife, Ursa. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa finds something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty and terrible evil, one he must root out at all costs.

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1621 witch trials, Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies is a story about how suspicion can twist its way through a community, and a love that may prove as dangerous as it is powerful.


‘As she watches him bend to the shelf below his pulpit, and bring out a letter bearing a seal and tassel, Maren realizes she hates him a little: his weakness, his power over them. His constant talk of the mercies of God, when it is obvious to her that they do not extend so far north.’

The Mercies is a chilling read that brings to life the Norwegian island region of Vardø, in the 1600s. A story of tragedy, loss, survival, friendship, loyalty, unconditional support and power, The Mercies is a carefully composed historical tale inspired by real events by award winning children’s book author, Kiran Millwood Hargrave.

Opening in the year 1617, in Vardø, just off Norway, we meet a remote island population in chaos. A one-off freak storm event has decimated this locale. The loss of forty fishermen is felt deep and hard. For the women left behind, this is a time of immense grief, but also concern for their future. As the island tries to recover, it is up to the women of this remote locale to rise up and take charge. But, the presence of a newcomer from Scotland to the island sparks rage and disarray. This man sets about gaining complete control and dominance of the island. Absalom Cornet wants each and every woman of Vardø to submit to his orders. Absalom Cornet’s wife Ursa, who has accompanied her husband to Vardø, is shocked and inspired by what she witnesses on the island. Both horrified and in awe of these women, Ursa makes a connection to the villagers, but with her husband on a mission to eradicate the evils he thinks he exists, it could be a tragic end for these enterprising women. The Mercies is a tale of doubt, danger, survival, love, power and support, carefully plucked from the pages of history.

The Mercies represents the first adult fiction novel from celebrated playwright, poet and children’s book author, Kiran Millwood Hargrave. The Mercies is a book that brilliantly brings to life a real life event in history and a location that many of us would be unfamiliar with. I have read a few feminist history tales of late and The Mercies is a fine example of a novel that captures the female experience of times past. The island of Vardø in the 1600s was a dangerous place to be a woman, which we glean more from via Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s story.

The Mercies plunges the reader in the artic island based abode of Vardø, in the Norwegian Islands region. I will admit to not knowing about the existence of this location prior to reading The Mercies. It is blessing when a historical fiction novel manages to bring to light a location and an event in history that you were previously unaware of. Historical fiction novels such as The Mercies have a strong place in the world, educating readers about keynotes events, people and locations from the past. Kiran Millwood Hargrave did an excellent job of reprising this part of the world for the reader. Although it was difficult to absorb at times, to be immersed in this defining point in history, especially in regards to the resulting witch trials following the great storm, The Mercies proved to be an insightful read.

It is obvious that the author has completed an enormous amount of research. The product of this strong research base is a narrative that is educative, informative, vivid and authentic. The accompanying Historical Note at the close of the book outlines further detail to this fascinating series of events. I know I was inspired after reading The Mercies to conduct my own online investigations on the area in which this book was based and the dramatic events that occurred in the 1600s. Kiran Millwood Hargrave presents a very accessible and readable history of an event that is likely shock. The device of using a double perspective narrative to voice the significant events and observations that are made during this time of great upheaval leaves a lasting impact on the reader.

Haunting, dark, revealing and intense, The Mercies offers a commanding look into times past, with particular attention to the women of Vardø, who both suffered and conquered during this time of great tragedy.

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Margrave was published on 28th January 2020 by Pan Macmillan. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Mercies, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, visit here.

*Thanks extended to Pan Macmillan for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.

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