The Boneless Mercies

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Boneless Mercies Book Poster Image
Intense, gender-bent Beowulf tale is a riveting adventure.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Although the author has changed some of the place names and terms, readers will still get a sense of what Norse sagas are like and the narrative elements of Beowulf.

Positive Messages

Promotes teamwork, courage, selflessness. Story follows women warriors who can hunt, kill, defend themselves and others.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The Boneless Mercies are complicated, slightly morally ambiguous characters, but they support and love one another, only kill for mercy or to defend themselves/others, and they take responsibility for their actions. They believe in honor in battle and in life. Trigve is loyal, selfless, kind. Roth is a fair and caring jarl. 

Violence

Lots of violence: explicitly described mercy killings past and present (poison, throats slit, necks broken, throats strangled). The Mercies defend themselves with axes, knives, fists, bows/arrows, their whole bodies. They mention seeing dead bodies (including children), burned villages, people dismembered, and more.

Sex

Mentions of a "Bliss House" (brothel) as being one of the only choices for orphaned girls. Frey mentions knowing Trigve's body as well as her own, but although they sleep next to each other and embrace and obviously love each other, there's no sex mentioned between them. A healer asks Trigve to share her bed, and Frey doesn't mind whether he wants to decline or not. Frey sleeps with someone who isn't Trigve but explains she's bound to Trigve just the same.

Language
Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults (by the culture's standards) drink -- occasionally to excess. The Mercies and Trigve eat a mushroom that leads to a high.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Boneless Mercies is author April Genevieve Tucholke's gender-bent YA twist on the legendary Beowulf tale, featuring glory-seeking young women warriors instead of men. Frey and her squad are paid mercy killers (or death traders) who eventually decide to track and kill a Giant laying waste to a kingdom. There is quite a bit of violence: The mercy killing involves the use of poison or, more often, blades to quickly slit throats. Then when the crew goes on their adventure, they have to defend themselves, and that includes drowning, sword-fighting, and hand-to-hand combat. There's a body count in the story that includes villages (including children) burned, people dismembered and crushed, and necks broken. The "Vorse" (Norse) attitude toward romantic relationships seems to be compartmentalize sexual relationships and companionship, with those "bound" to each other being accepting of having lovers. Adult characters drink "vite" and get drunk on occasion and in one scene get high on psychedelic mushrooms. The book will teach readers about the narrative style of old Norse sagas.

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What's the story?

Inspired by Beowulf, THE BONELESS MERCIES is a tale of medieval fantasy glory-seeking not by a man but by a 17-year-old girl who's part of a small band of death traders. Frey, the protagonist, is the leader of four titular Boneless Mercies: women who quietly exchange coin for mercy killings (no vengeance killings allowed). They roam from village to village in this alternate, fantasy version of Scandinavia, releasing people from their terminal pain and suffering. Frey, who desperately wants to be remembered as an epic warrior, and her crew -- stoic, one-eyed Ovie; tall, strong, and restless Runa; and beautiful Sea Witch Juniper -- are joined by handsome Trigve, Frey's companion (they're bound to each other but not romantically monogamous), a healer in training. After hearing a call to action to help Jarl (a Scandinavian chief) Roth rid his jarldom Blue Vee of a Giant who's burning and killing his entire village, Frey convinces her Mercies and Trigve to accompany her on the dangerous mission to slay the Giant. Along the way, the Mercies must align with the Sea Witches, face off with a bloodthirsty cult leader, and keep themselves healthy enough for the main battle.

Is it any good?

This gorgeously written feminist twist on Beowulf allows young women warriors to seek glory and the men to take supporter and healer roles. Readers don't need to know the story of Beowulf and Grendel to enjoy author April Genevieve Tucholke's Norse tale. But those who are familiar with the Old English classic will be utterly awed at how wonderful the writing, world-building, and narrative arc are in Boneless Mercies. Frey is a mesmerizing protagonist. She yearns for glory, for her name to live on in sagas and songs. She's bound to the compassionate and loyal Trigve, who is the kind of love interest young adult books need more of: young men who aren't afraid of strong and independent women. And more than anything, she basks in the friendship and camaraderie of her fellow Mercies, who are young women with their own stories. She's also fairly bloodthirsty. She wants a good death in battle.

Somehow, Tucholke brings Frey's layers together in a likable whole. In fact, every character is utterly human and believably real, with backstories (most of them tragic) that explain their personalities and outlooks. The evocative prose is almost cinematic in nature: You sense the snowy landscapes, the muddy marsh, the fur pelts, the warmth of the hearth. The action sequences are nail-biters -- the Mercies bleed and bruise and scream in pain -- making the moments of feasting, drinking, and storytelling that much sweeter. Tucholke is a versatile writer, and this is the rare standalone that makes you long for a sequel. It's an ideal pick for fans of epic fantasies like Six of Crows, Seafire, and Frostblood.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the role of gender in The Boneless Mercies. How does the author subvert assumptions about gender in the Middle Ages? Why is it important for girls and women to see girl/women characters as warriors and men as healers?

  • Discuss the violence in the book, which can be explicit in description. Is fantasy violence any less authentic or impactful than violence set in realistic fiction? Why or why not?

  • How is love and romance depicted in the story? What does Frey mean about being bound as friends but not lovers? Does the non-monogamous nature of the central relationship take away from their love?

  • Who, if anyone, is a role model in the book? What are their character strengths?

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