“If we kill all the monsters, mankind will take their place.”
—The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke
What is it, you think, that drives people to want to change their lives? A chance to better themselves? An opportunity to beat boredom? To gain freedom, to achieve glory, fortune, and a place in legend?
For the girls in The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke, especially its main narrator, Frey, it is really all of the above.
Loosely inspired by Norse Sagas and Beowulf, The Boneless Mercies follows the lives of Frey and her friends Ovie, Juniper, and Runa, who make a living as Boneless Mercies, roaming the land as death-traders, hired to kill the sick, the injured, and the lost. With them is a single male companion, a healer, whom they have allowed to join their gang.
Although the deaths they administer are not exactly violent, theirs is not an easy trade, often allowing for some very traumatic encounters (the killing of children is especially difficult). It is work that needs to be done by women alone and it pays just about enough to make do and ensure they have enough to live day by day. It is work that needs doing, as they know, and although they all dream of a different life, they all feel like maybe they are just fated to keep on going.
Frey is the one to come up with a solution and prove they do have a choice. It happens when they hear of the legendary Blue Vee beast, a monster who has been killing entire villages. The jarl of that region is offering an enormous fortune to the one who can kill the creature. The reward will be enough to allow the girls to finally do what they want.
And, Frey thinks, if in the killing of the Blue Vee beast, they manage to earn a reputation, to become famous and have songs and sagas describing their glory, then all the better.
And glorious this book certainly is, as it allows for its main female character to want fame and glory, pursuing it even if it kills her. The story is a slow, epic-sounding saga following Frey and her crew as they travel through the land from adventure to adventure, meeting witches, cults, horrible people, and even worse monsters. They also make friends, lovers, allies, and discover that even terrible monsters have hearts and their own stories to tell.
Every single step they take brings them closer to their goal while at the same time making them rethink who they are, what they want, and how they want to live their lives. This is effectively a story about a found family against the backdrop of an inspiring tale of achievement and wonder.
“Many heroes of the Vorse sagas started off as mercenary wanderers, seeking food, shelter, coin, and a quest. But they were all men. There are no sagas about Boneless Mercies. Nor songs, either.”
Well, now there is one right here.
In Booksmugglerish, an enthusiastic 8 out of 10.