The Boneless Mercies is a genderbent Beowulf retelling and the third book I’ve read by April Genevieve Tucholke. I liked Wink Poppy Midnight for its weirdness and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea for its atmosphere, but this one might be my favorite one of the three.
The Boneless Mercies is, at its heart, a story about friendships. Mostly about friendships between women, but there are some relevant m/f ones too – the only thing that this book lacks is a romance, and I really did not miss it.
Even in YA books that are supposedly about friendships, the romance almost always ends up overshadowing the friendships. Because in YA fiction, friendships are static and boring and one-dimensional, while romance gets the development.
This is the only book I know that not only doesn’t fall in the “this is just friendship” trap, but reverses it. When the main character is asked whether she’s in a relationship with a guy, she answers that they’re friends. And the other person answers “so it’s deeper, then” (or something like that) and it was so beautiful to see. It’s also a sex-positive story. There’s no romance, but the main character sleeps with a man she’s not in a relationship with, and again, I almost never see this in YA fiction.
The Boneless Mercies is the story of four women looking for a future in a world in which they’re forced to wander as outcasts. It’s about striving for more while never belonging, about seeking glory. The main characters aren’t forced to face peril by circumstances: they look for it. They find it, and they go through it together.
I don’t remember the last time I saw that in a YA book. Maybe I never did, especially not in a book with a mostly-female cast, and it was so refreshing. I hadn’t realized how used I was to passive main characters.
As I now expect from April Genevieve Tucholke, this book was beautifully written and atmospheric. It has the kind of writing that makes you feel the wind, the snow, the smell of saltwater; that makes you feel as if you’re getting lost in the marshes too, as if you’re wandering in the mist with the characters.
Some described this book as slow-paced and incomplete, and I see why, but I don’t think this story would have worked if it had been written like most YA fantasy books. It’s creepy and bloody and dark, but it’s mostly sad, and I think many didn’t like that. But this is not a story about defeating a beast and falling in love in the process, this is a story about looking for your place in an unwelcoming, changing world, about the uncertainty of it all. The way it feels so distant and so close at the same time is exactly what made it feel like a myth and not just like another retelling that kept the bones of the story but not the heart of it.
There’s something nostalgic about it, and I think that’s the way it should be.
For something that felt very distant, it sure made me feel a lot of things. It’s been a long while since a character death affected me this much, as I find most of them cop-outs. Also, the characters were great and I loved all of them:
🐺 Frey, the narrator, a girl seeking glory in a world in which glory is a man’s thing. I loved her a lot.
🐺 Ovie, a warrior girl with a mysterious past. Probably the least developed of the five, but still great.
🐺 Runa, an archer with a very abrasive side. She went through a lot, she just wants to leave. An awesome character.
🐺 Juniper, Sea Witch, the youngest and most magical of the group. Deserves every good thing.
🐺 Trigve, the only guy in the group, a Soft Boy between warrior girls.
I didn’t think this book was perfect – I thought that changing words like “Norse” to “Vorse” and “Valhalla” to “Holhalla” felt more cheesy than anything – but I’m glad I found a book inspired by Norse mythology about female warriors I actually liked.
I did kind of want this book to be gayer. Listen, there was so much sapphic subtext here, but as there was no romance at all, I’m not even mad it just remained subtext. Also, at some point the main character says she wouldn’t mind if Trigve decided to spend the night with a healer girl because she’d do the same thing and… I know, I wouldn’t recommend this as a queer book as it’s a blink-or-miss thing, but there’s no heterosexual explanation for this. Frey is totally bi.
My rating: ★★★★½