The Mercies begins with a true tragedy. It’s Christmas Eve, 1617. As most of the men who live in Vardo, a remote Norwegian village, are out fishing, a tremendous storm strikes, killing them all and leaving the women to fend for themselves. Kiran Millwood Hargrave uses these true events to tell the story of two women who are profoundly affected by the events that unspool thereafter.

We meet Maren Magnusdatter just before the storm. In a flash, she loses her father, her brother and her fiancé to the waves. Devastated, just like the other women in Vardo, Maren must learn how to pick up the pieces. As the village toils to survive, two warring groups form: one led by the strong-willed Kristen Sorensdatter, who take on the work of the men (including the forbidden act of fishing) and another fronted by the pious Toril Knudsdatter, who seek refuge in the church. Maren joins Kristen’s faction while her mother falls in with the self-righteous ire of the churchgoers.

Meanwhile, the local Lensman summons Scottish witch hunter Absalom Cornet to Vardo to restore order. There are rumors that witchcraft caused the storm and Cornet’s job is to sniff out any sort of malpractice among the villagers. Among his targets are the indigenous Sami people who use runes and other sorts of “magic” to aid fishermen. Before he arrives in Vardo, Cornet stops in the city of Bergen to select a wife. Here he meets and marries Ursula, the daughter of a widowed shipowner.

Hargrave drafts a strong, second protagonist in Ursula, who soon learns that her husband is an unkind brute. He is rough in the bedroom and too willing to execute witches. She comes to Vardo naïve and sheltered, and she must learn to exist in the extreme climate. Desperate for friendship, she and Maren soon form a bond that quickly exceeds the boundaries of friendship as they both see the depths of Cornet’s depravity.

Hargrave and The Mercies are at their best in vivid descriptions of 17th century village life. The passages describing the sea and the mountains are exquisite in their detail as the author creates a world of mud, snow and despair that is palpable. The relationship between Maren and Ursula is tender and believable, though there may a little too much internal dialogue about the forbidden temptation that bonds them.

If anything, The Mercies is a frightening and timely reminder of a time when people, under the spell of a mighty agitator, committed terrible atrocities. In real history, more than 90 people were executed by the authorities for purported witchcraft. Though The Mercies saves its witch hunt for the final act, there is a terrifying connection here that casts a damning light on these modern times and the subjectivity of truth.

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