Book Review: Hargrave's Remarkable Book Inspired by the Vardø Witch Trials

When I received this book in the mail, I didn’t think it would capture me so much. The moment I clicked with the females in this book, I rooted, pitied and hoped for them. Hargrave has a beautiful way of writing and I can’t wait to read her other books.


After a storm has killed off all the island's men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.


Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves.


Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband's authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil.


As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom's iron rule threatening Vardø's very existence.


Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials,The Merciesis a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization. Thank you to Pan Mac Millan, who provided a physical copy of the book. In no way does the process of how I received this book influence my opinion. For more books by Pan Mac Millan, visit here. I’m not one for Historical Fiction, but after reading this book, I might give more books a try. It took a while for me to get used to the writing and language constructed in the 1600s, but after that… I found Hargrave’s style of writing engaging. From the first chapter, it struck like lightening that the men have drowned. There’s no drag or emotion. The women set to work and subtly mourn over the males. It’s clear that Hargrave did a ton of research. From the lifestyle, scenery, clothing, food and language. It made the book more enjoyable and enticing.

Our major character, Maren, has lost her brother and father. Her brother married a Sami woman. They see Sami people as witches, so Dinna isn’t liked in Vardø. She doesn’t care what people say though and just wants to raise her son who she named after her husband. Maren’s mother suddenly has this hatred for Dinna but still cares for her grandchild. She struck by the loss of her husband and son, but it was frustrating to see her lose the relationship she had with Dinna and Maren.


For a while the women fend for themselves and are successful with the help of Kirsten. She doesn’t so much grieve for who she lost but becomes a leader. One of my favourite characters in the book alongside Maren. Suddenly, this pastor shows up and tries to take control and lead the women back onto the right path. He senses a Sami woman in Vardø and writes a letter to a commissioner. That’s when things go down hill… fast.


Before a commissioner comes, he has to get married. That’s when our other major character comes into view. Ursula. A beautiful youthful woman who only knew a lovely life in Bergen. Suddenly she’s separated from her family and married off to Absalom Cornet. They go by ship to Vardø and Ursula sees how these women live. They don’t mind it, but she has to get used to it. She has to get used to doing stuff for herself and her husband. It’s sad to read how he takes advantage of her and how men had such control over their wives. I think that’s what pulled me into this book, that I hadn’t read something like this. Where power contrasts between Ursula and Kirsten.



All seemed okay the first few days, but then Absalom hears there are Sami people in Vardø. The Kirke women, specifically Toril who I hated from the start, becomes his pet and second pair of eyes. She tells him everything. At one point I thought an affair occurred between them, but they’re too holy for that. Once Absalom catches wind of Dinna, he must rid of her and others who were mentioned.


That’s when Ursula discovers the genuine person whom she married. She’s disgusted by him and does not want to ever be near him. The worst part was that he hoped for children, but only boys! How absurd to think women are witches and weak. That they’re just fit for being at home and giving birth.


It’s sad that this is based on a true story but I’m so glad I read it! Hargrave has opened a door for me. After I read the book, I tried to find more articles based on the Vardø Witch Trials. It’s interesting and I highly recommend to anyone who enjoyed this book.


I loved the relationship Maren and Ursula had and wished them the best! Hopefully, one day they’ll reunite whether it’s in Bergen or on the other side of the world. Also, I hope Maren finds Dinna and her son who had to go into hiding because of Absalom and the other men thinking they’re witches. It’s sad how the women of Vardø turned out in the end. Even Maren’s mother saw what she had done. I don’t know about Toril and her following, but they wept from what the aftermath was. It was tragic. Yet bittersweet all at once.





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