BookView is a column that analyses literary texts of all genres from an intersectional, feminist standpoint.
Trigger warnings: character death, animal death, violence towards children, murder, mercy killing, gore
An evocative fantasy loosely inspired by – and a female-led retelling of – Beowulf, April Genevieve Tucholke’s The Boneless Mercies is a lush saga that weaves together love and murder, mercy and glory, into a haunting portrayal of life and death.
In some ways, the story that Tucholke creates exists as a polar opposite to Beowulf. Beowulf is a man’s story – its female characters are either monsters or trophies, the very image of the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy. In Tucholke’s story, however, women are central to the story, filling every corner of the world in the pages: heroes, killers, witches, leaders, lovers, warriors, even beasts and monsters, women are everything in The Boneless Mercies.
Tucholke gives her main characters – a group of five teens wandering the fictional country of Vorseland – a strange sort of agency that is rarely seen in fiction that revolves around women. Four of her characters are young women who belong nowhere else, in a world that allows them to be recruited as Boneless Mercies – sanctioned mercy killers who wander the world, always looking for a new job. They are women with weapons, endowed with the ability to bring about certain deaths. But they are also the consciences of the places they go to, serving as silent, unsanctioned killers of abusers they are begged to kill.
These “women with weapons” are contrasted by the healer among them, the sole boy that travels by their side. Tucholke delights in flipping gender constructs over, with her main characters forming the pillar on which all other twists rest.
Told through the point of view of Frey, the leader of the band of Boneless Mercies who has escaped a life that seemed destined to see her as a pleasurer in a Bliss House, the story follows the desire of its lead characters to be more than what they are. A common thread through the story is the fact that Boneless Mercies are never referenced in the great Vorse sagas that she has heard of. The Mercies are an ever-present part of Vorse life, but they are women who take on work that is uniquely the realm of women. “Men would not do our sad, dark wok,” Frey muses, and this women’s work is disregarded within the novel as “domestic” and everyday, not worthy or even a mention in the sagas that are told.
Determined to change that, Tucholke makes it a point to have Frey muse on how her “blood [sings] of glory.” She is already driven by the desire to mete out justice, enjoying the kills of “the daughter-beaters, the women-beaters, the ones who were cruel to animals, the ones who were brutal and selfish and had.” But the Mercies fall into a liminal space as women with agency and weapons, but also woven into a strangely patriarchal system. And so Tucholke gives her characters the ability to walk away, to create their own destinies, by giving them an adventure to fulfil and a monster to kill in the form of a beast terrorising the far away land of Blue Vee.
Though a fantasy novel in an unfamiliar world, focusing on a quest to kill a beast, Tucholke never really delves into the land or lore of the world she has created. Instead, the story more often than not feels like you’re intruding on the conversations of a group of friends. They talk about their lives, exchanging stories and personal histories as they travel. In some ways, it slows the story down. And at the same time, it serves as a modern domestic novel – ostensibly a tale of adventure, it is also a story of the internal lives of women and the people around them, giving a fantasy novel a touch of realism. The lack of details can be annoying for readers at times, especially when the story follows roads that feel as though they are part of larger saga, but it also makes you more invested in what could otherwise be ignored as the unnecessary details of the lives of the characters, but instead take centre stage as pieces that motivate the characters.
Tucholke’s story is an unflinchingly brutal one, who mercy-killing girls, witches protected by brambled paths lined with dead bodies, and a cult led by a child queen whose self-flagellation is the source of her magic. The male characters line the edges of the story, minor characters that only serve to advance the Mercies’ story – the only exception is Trigve, the male healer they travel with and who serves as the fifth member of the group alongside the four female Mercies.
The women who make up Vorseland, however, are created in shades of grey – simultaneously dark and light, monster and hero. Each woman has her own motivations, and Tucholke strives to give them all the chance to speak their minds. She makes sure to treat them as fairly as possible – each motivation is understandable, if not always agreeable. Her Mercies – Frey, Ovie, Juniper, and Runa – and Trigve are all complex and nuanced characters, and she extends that treatment to every character that they encounter in their journey, culminating in the Jarl Roth, the young male leader of Blue Vee, and the Blue Vee Beast they set out to kill.
The story is undeniably slow in portions, and the moments filled with high stakes rarely raise your adrenaline. There is no true moment of victory for the reader to take satisfaction in – there is urgency, but no intensity, Fights won leave you feeling not victorious, but sombre. And while there is value in pointing out the melancholy of being forced the take more lives when you have spent your lives are kills for hire, the lack of an acknowledgement of the victory, of celebration of it, leaves you feeling unsatisfied.
At the end of it all, the story feels like a smaller part of a much larger saga, and it remains to be seen whether Tucholke will revisit these characters and follow them further (a companion novel is in the works, but featuring new characters and seemingly a new storyline).
In her writing of The Boneless Mercies, however, Tucholke creates a story of found families and women creating their own stories, a domestic novel that focuses on the strength and compassion of the “broken” people that line the edges of society. It is a lush story of female companionship and friendship. Her focus is never on romance, but the relationships between women and their relationship with the world at large, and the men that occupy it.
Rishika Aggarwal is a Blogger at One Future Collective.
Featured image source: The Mary Sue
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