Welcome to Patricia Brigg’s world, a place where “witches, vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters live beside ordinary people” (Booklist). It takes a very unusual woman to call it home – and there’s no one quite like Mercy.We’ve put it off and we’ve put it off, but we just can’t continue to ignore a new Mercy Thompson book. We’ve made our feelings about the series so far pretty clear, and it’s gotten a great deal of crap from us, mostly for the rampant sexism, Mercy’s inaction, and Adam’s controlling, dickish nature. We decided to continue the series to see if it’d ever get around to addressing any of that, and, well, River Marked kind of does. Reading it with the mindset that we have about the series, River Marked almost seemed like a response to that. Not to us, specifically, of course, but to what one might perceive as common issues: possessive mates, potential abusive situations, and an utter lack of development of the Native American aspect of Mercy’s world.
Coyote shapeshifter Mercy Thompson knows that life with her mate, the Alpha werwolf Adam, will never be boring, but even their wedding doesn’t go as planned. Nevertheless, a ten – day honeymoon camping on the banks of the Columbia River, alone, just the two of them, should make up for it. But the trip-and the pimped-out trailer they’re using – is courtesy of the fae. And nothing from the fae comes without strings attached…
Being a different breed of shapeshifter – a walker – Mercy can see ghosts, but the spirit of her long-gone father has never visited her. Until now. An evil is stirring in the depths of the Columbia River – and innocent people are dying. As other walkers make their presence known to Mercy, she must connect with her heritage to exorcise the world of the legend known as the river devil…
Here, in the sixth book in the series, Mercy’s heritage finally comes front and center, as do some of the problems in her relationship with Adam. For us, though, it seemed as though the book went to great lengths to overcompensate for or explain away these things…without actually fixing any of them.
If we had any hope for a shake-up in the formula, though, the first few pages of River Marked were quick to assure us the character dynamics had not changed. Not even a full chapter in, and we see Mercy, well, pulling a “Mercy” during an argument with her “babysitter”, Darryl.
With Adam out of town, Mercy is out on her own for the evening, on her way to BFF Warren’s place for a movie night. She decides to stop by and check on Stefan, as both she and the book seem to have realized that we haven’t heard from him since Bone Crossed, and that this can’t be good, given the state he was in. Anyway, she’s at Stefan’s house, trying to bully him into coming out with her, when Darryl calls to check in, because she’s hasn’t made it to Warren’s yet. Apparently, the pack, at Adam’s behest, has decided to ignore the fact that Mercy is a 30-year-old woman who doesn’t need to be monitored like a child or prisoner, and has been keeping close tabs on her.
Mercy, totally justifiably, is sarcastic and defensive when she answers the call the first time, and hangs up on Darryl without giving him any real information. It’s perfectly clear that she is fine, though, and that should be the end of it. Yet not two pages later, Darryl is calling her back, and Mercy instantly renegs on her rebellious stance and answers. She obediently fills him in on the details of her whereabouts and intentions, as if it was any business of his in the first place.
It’s business as usual – the wolves are trying to control Mercy’s every move, because after all, they know what’s best for her, and though she makes a big show of rebelling (because she’s a STRONG HEROINE OK?), Mercy follows this up by almost immediately doing exactly what they want her to. Nice to see things haven’t changed.
The whole idea that “everyone else knows best” has been a problem for us throughout the series, but the wedding that kicks off River Marked is probably the single most frustrating demonstration that we’ve seen yet of just how little Mercy’s desires matter to any of the other characters. We weren’t too thrilled about the wedding to begin with, obviously, but a wedding’s a wedding, and we didn’t really expect it to be a Thing. We were so very unprepared for the sheer level of dickishness that the event would involve.
The set-up here is that, despite her desire to elope, Mercy and Adam have opted to have a wedding simply to appease Mercy’s mother. She’s not enjoying it, which makes sense, because a big, elaborate wedding seems at odds with Mercy’s low-key personality. But she’s doing it anyway, because her mother is Ultra Girly, and missed out planning a wedding for Mercy’s half-sister, because she actually eloped.
However, unbeknownst to the happy couple, most of Mercy’s family actually believe that she’ll freak out during the preparations and end up eloping anyway, so they decide to be super-supportive about this, and take bets on when this will happen. Pretty soon everyone is in on this bet, including Mercy’s mother – you know, the one she’s DOING ALL THIS FOR in the first place. She goes so far as to goad Mercy into eloping by scaring the hell out of her with descriptions of horrifyingly elaborate decorations and stunts.
In the midst of all this, they all start feeling bad about driving Mercy to elope, so they start planning a surprise wedding on the side, that naturally still includes all of the things that Mercy found so repulsive in the first place.
This is probably supposed to be utterly hilarious, but it’s not. It’s not funny, it’s not cute, and it’s not sweet, no matter how much the book wants us to believe it is. It’s actually pretty fucked up. This is Mercy’s wedding, and by all rights it should be what Mercy wants it to be, which is pretty clearly elopement. But none of the characters take that into consideration – Mercy gets a wedding, first for the sake of indulging her mother’s fantasy, and then to assuage everyone else’s guilt.
It’s pretty clear throughout the book how much Mercy’s desires don’t really matter to anyone. She bends for the sake of indulging everyone else, for the sake of keeping the peace or smoothing things over, and this dynamic even manages to extend into her marriage.
We were actually pretty surprised to get a scene in which Mercy’s mother expresses some skepticism regarding Mercy and Adam’s relationship. Seemed like everyone was already on board with that, but apparently not, and thank God perhaps sanity will finally be restored. It starts out well enough, with her mother warning Mercy that Alphas have their ways of influencing people, getting them to agree to things they normally wouldn’t, and that this might not make for a healthy relationship. True enough, and a good point. But then she goes on to say this:
…but remember confrontations aren’t productive with an Alpha. You’ll just lose – or worse, make him lose control.”*headdesk*
“He won’t hurt me, mom.”
“Of course not. But a man like Adam, if he loses control, he’ll feel terrible. He’ll worry that he might have hurt you. Making him feel horrible isn’t what you want.”
So the advice Mercy gets from her mother is: don’t argue – not just because you won’t get anywhere, but because it will make Adam feel bad. Yet again, Mercy’s being told that she’s going to have to change her behavior to accomodate Adam’s temper. And this would be ignorable if it were just her mother’s opinion, but horrible part is, Mercy ACKNOWLEDGES THAT THIS IS TRUE, and acts accordingly. This is really just how their relationship is going to work.
The tail end of Mercy’s conversation with her mother illustrates our other problem with this book’s approach to Mercy’s and Adam’s relationship. Mercy’s mother advises her daughter not to let Adam turn her into a “good little wife”, because it won’t make her happy. This is awesome, and again, we’re glad that SOMEONE is acknowledging this possibility. But again, the discussion goes south. Mercy insists that Adam doesn’t want a “good little wife”, to which Mercy’s mother says:
“Of course not. But he was taught how to be a husband when it was assumed that his wife would be a combination cook/housekeeper/mother who would need him to provide and protect her. He knows in his head and his hart that you are an equal, but his instincts were instilled a long time ago. You are going to have to help him with that and be patient with him.”You know what we never get tired of? People making excuses for Adam and the other wolves’ behavior. There are dozens of them: it’s their wolves that are aggressive, it’s just in their nature, they’re just old-fashioned, they’re just being protective, they just love you so much. They shouldn’t need excuses, and the excuses don’t fix anything, but we’ve said it before, and we and the book just seem to disagree with that.
No, the real problem with this is that once again, we’re being told about Adam and Mercy’s relationship. We’re being told that Adam sees Mercy as an equal, and this is supposed to make everything okay. But you know what we rarely, if ever, see? Adam treating Mercy as an equal. Christ, in this very book he has her baby-sat the same way he does his sixteen-year-old daughter. How does that demonstrate equality?
The problem here is that the book just doesn’t seem to want to change the dynamics or Mercy and Adam’s relationship, so it contents itself with telling, excusing, and explaining them away.
Here’s another one that really burned our butts: while on the honeymoon, Mercy reflects on the dynamics of the ~magical~ mating bond that she and Adam share. One of the things she’s pretty quick to mention is that, because they are just SO emotionally connected and can see into each others’ mind (unless it’s inconvenient for the plot, of course), abuse is “almost not possible”.
Well thanks for letting us know, book, now that you’ve said that, our view of Adam as a controlling, angry, borderline-abusive prick has instantly changed!
Oh wait, no hasn’t.
Look, just SAYING that Adam and Mercy’s relationship could never be abusive DOESN’T MAGICALLY MAKE IT SO, especially when the series has continually demonstrated the opposite. Adam’s constant need to control Mercy, to know what she does and where she goes, his supposed “protectiveness”, which we’ve seen in this very novel, is a TEXTBOOK example of psychological abuse.
Additionally, his werewolf predisposition to violence is still troubling, no matter how much Mercy insists he will never hurt her. He’s still acts like an abusive asshole – all throughout the book, he behaves in very jealous and possessive ways. He corrects men who call Mercy by her maiden name, he’s reluctant to grant her privacy with strangers, or even leave her alone in public settings, and let’s not forget the shit he’s done in previous books, like installing security cameras her workplace without her permission, tearing up rooms in a rage, and punching holes in walls. This guy is scary, and just saying that he would never turn this on Mercy doesn’t make him any less so, or the relationship any less disturbing, especially when you consider how much Mercy idolizes this rage. They are like two steps away from this:
And we haven’t even gotten to the rings yet.
There’s a scene in which Adam and Mercy discuss the issue of wedding rings, in part because, as a mechanic, it’s dangerous for Mercy wear her rings while she works on cars. Adam, progressive as usual, spouts out this little gem.
“I like having you wear my ring. I like that people can just look at you and know that you are taken, that you are mine. And yes, I know that sentiment is at the top of the Women’s Liberation Movement’s list of things not to say to a modern woman.”lol LAMPSHADING. It doesn’t actually fix the problem. But really, this is a kind of understandable statement from a love-struck newlywed – the only problem is that it’s coming from Adam, for whom possession is a SERIOUS FUCKING ISSUE. Still, you can see what’s happening here. The book is acknowledging that Adam’s feelings aren’t exactly healthy – a sentiment potentially shared by the readers. So what’s Mercy’s response?
“You better not take off your ring without a really good reason. And if your ex-wife or any moderately attractive woman from thirteen to seventy is in the area, you should be aware that there is no reason good enough for you to take off your ring.”Oh, so you see, it’s TOTALLY OK that Adam is controlling and possessive, because now Mercy is possessive too! She spends the next page and a half or so trying to make Adam feel better about (what she assumes is) his possessiveness by assuring him that she’s just as possessive as he is. She’s TOTES COOL with the whole “piss-on-my-leg-MINE” concept now, so much so that she ends up agreeing to never take the rings off, and to wearing them around her neck while she’s working – on the same chain as the dogtags that bear his name, a TWO-FOLD symbol of possession.
Glad to see not even Mercy cares about her independence any more.
We do give props to the book in a few places, where it at least tried to pry some understanding from Adam. He did, at least, for the most part, respect Mercy’s decision to handle the big bad here on her own. Granted, the book had to jump through hoops to make it impossible for him to participate so that he would stay out of it, but at least he didn’t throw Mercy in the trunk and speed home, right? We’re GRASPING AT STRAWS HERE, OK?
We were also particularly pleased with this sentiment:
“Mercy, in a fair fight between near equals, I’ll back you every time. It’s the demons, vampires, and river devils I worry about, and I’m working on that.”…until we turned our brains back on. So, in Adam’s head, he gets to decide who Mercy is and isn’t up to handling herself? Who she’s equal to? It’s okay for her to be independent while he’s comfortable, but the moment he thinks she’s out of her depth? STEP ASIDE, BABE, LEAVE THE TOUGH FIGHTING TO THE BIG BOYS.
But at least he’s working on it, right? STRAWS.
Ugh. TL;DR the romance hasn’t gotten any better.
Also, side note? No sex. What the Hell? This is the HONEYMOON, and we don’t get even one descriptive sex scene. And this is an ADULT book so why not?
Anyway, Mercy and Adam bonding aside, we actually didn’t mind this book’s story as much as we could have. It didn’t strike us as any more or less boring than the rest of the books had been, and we enjoyed what we learned about the new mythological facet of Brigg’s world that this book introduced, even if we did feel like we were told a lot more of it than we were shown. That being said…
It’s been pointed out that there has been a pretty obvious lack of any sort of expansion on Mercy’s Native American origin in the five previous books in the series. The focus of River Marked almost feels like a response to that, because it showers you with Native American culture – well, Pacific Northwestern Native American culture, anyway. Legends seem to change depending on which part of the country and which tribe they’re coming from, and this book specifically refers to the Yakima tribe, so we’re guessing it’s that tribe’s mythology?
At any rate, the set-up is pretty straight forward: Mercy and Adam are on their honeymoon, camping in a newly-renovated fae-owned park. Adam’s company has set up the security for it, and as such the fae grant him and Mercy early access as a sort of wedding gift. Except that no gift from the fae come without strings: they’ve been having problems at the site, and they want Mercy and Adam to investigate.
Eventually, we come to find out that an ancient monster has been unleashed in the river, and has putting tourists in under its thrall, luring them to their watery deaths, and consuming them to sate its unending hunger.
The catalyst for the plot here is pretty damned contrived – not that that’s really anything new to the series, and it’s less so than it has been before. Still, it hinges on Adam doing something uncharacteristically dumb (in accepting a gift from the fae in the first place) in order to get him and Mercy into a position where they can get involved in this new plot without it seeming totally random. Unfortunately, it doesn’t keep the Native American mythology from feeling like it comes out of nowhere.
Up ’til now, Mercy’s world has been distinctly limited: we’ve seen fae, werewolves, vampires, a few magic-users, and that’s it. Aside from Mercy herself, and the walker-mythos the vampires divulged to her, there hasn’t been any real development of any mythology outside of these three core groups. Honestly, after five books, we’d kind of assumed that that was all we’d be getting. Apparently not.
The primary focus of River Marked is the Native American mythology. The plot is really just the excuse we’re given to explore it. When Mercy isn’t interacting with a veritable pantheon of Native American mythological figures – Coyote, Raven, Wolf, and Thunderbird, to name a few – she and Adam are visiting museums or learning about the culture from in a detailed and in-depth way we’ve never seen before. The supporting cast, as well, is almost exclusive Native.
It’s long-overdue, and again, we did enjoy a lot of what we learned. The plot was thankfully more cohesive than usual, and Mercy played a surprisingly more active role – more on that later. As usual, Briggs does a great job of creating interesting side characters, and the new additions here are, for the most part, intriguing and fun. One that must be included in the “like” department is Coyote. Kayla particularly loved this hilarious new character, loved reading about him, and truly hopes to see him again in books to come.
The thing is…well, like we said, the development of Mercy’s background is long overdue. This is book six, and we’re just now learning about Mercy’s father, his history, and the true origin of Mercy’s power. And…well, like much of the rest of the book, it feels like overcompensation. It doesn’t really gel with what the rest of the series has established so far, and much of Mercy’s history is retconned to make it fit with this new installment. For example, Mercy isn’t totally ignorant or uninterested in her heritage! She totally tried to learn more about herself and her culture in college, ok?
Also, she’s not actually a coyote skinwalker – y’know, the monsters whose myths are of primarily Navajo origin (Mercy is Blackfoot/feet?), involve people who’ve gained their powers through murdering a close relative, and are considered vile and evil! Why that would be inaccurate! Instead, River Marked introduces the concept of “avatars”, people who are the children of two descendents of Native American gods, and have inherited the ability to take on their forms. Mercy, however, is not just any old “avatar”, she’s the daughter of Coyote himself.
Yes, Mercy Thompson has been retconned into divinity. She’s SPESHUL!
And, well, we couldn’t help but notice that every single Native American character that Mercy meets is magical. They’re ghosts or “avatars” or gods or shamen. This is a book full of Magican Native Americans.
Fixing problematic race issues: perhaps not exactly as planned?
On the “pros” side of the column for River Marked, we at least have Mercy killing the demon river monster herself, which is was no small task. She is the linchpin of the great plot to destroy the Big Bad, and boy, does the book not let you forget it. Despite the plot involving a dozen or so “gods” (though the book made it a point to say they were not gods in the traditional sense of being worshiped, and that they were submissive to a singular, greater “Creator” ahahaha Christianity rules), everyone is careful to remind us that this could SO NOT SUCCEED if Mercy weren’t present. In fact, nobody else could fulfill this VERY IMPORTANT ROLE that Mercy is SPECIALLY SUITED FOR because of her resistance to magic, or maybe it’s her pack bond, or maybe it’s because she’s been retconned into a demigod, WHO KNOWS, the important part is that MERCY IS NECESSARY DON’T YOU SEE?
The gods are only there to strategize and tell Mercy what to do – they’re really expendable, and end up having to feed themselves to the creature so it can go into a kind of deep sleep coma from over-eating, making it vulnerable, pretty much like the two of us after Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah, that’s seriously the plan, no, we are not shitting you. The book very pointedly, literally relegates Adam to the sidelines and forbids him from interfering, so that Mercy can save the day herself, and she does, on her own, with her own hands, ALONE DAMMIT, with no help from Adam or anyone else.
This is unfortunately kind of a big thing for the series. Most of the time Mercy’s problems are solved with the help of her wolves or her other friends. There have only been a few instances where she handles things totally solo, so it’s nice to see her doing it again, and we do give the book credit for that. Mercy’s fight with the river monster is vicious, nasty, and bloody. She does not leave the battle unscathed.
That aside, we did have one rather big issue with the resolution of the plot, or at least, an aspect of it: the decision to kill off a little girl and her entire family to make Mercy feel guilty. Towards the book’s climax, the big bad river monster gives Mercy an ultimatum: sacrifice her life and allow the monster to eat her…or let a little girl under the creature’s control die. It’s briefly discussed, but everyone – including Mercy herself – pretty much instantly agrees that it’s a no. Mercy cannot die, because she’s SPECIAL, and without her the plan to kill the monster will fail. So Mercy turns the river monster down, and it proceeds to actually eat not only the little girl, but her little brother and her parents as well. And we get to read about it.
This was very difficult to read, mostly because of the way the book and Mercy handled it. For Kayla, who has children, it was very emotionally troubling reading about the death of a child, and lingered, affecting her experience reading the rest of the book. It seemed to both of us that this incredibly disturbing scene was irrelevant. There was no point in the traumatizing choice Mercy had to make – it didn’t affect the plot whatsoever, and Mercy takes it almost shockingly in stride. She doesn’t angst about it, doesn’t dwell on it, doesn’t really give voice to another thought about this girl and her family after it happens. Sure, she tells us that she stays up all night that night, because “how could she sleep”, but that’s all the reaction we get out of her. She just moves on, spending the rest of her night and day chilling with Adam, as though it was just a little hump she had to get over to get into a “No big deal, now I gotta focus on killing this thing” zone. WTF? Why? A little girl and her family just died! DIED! For no good reason, except maybe to present an ultimately meaningless, morally ambiguous dilemma that doesn’t seem to impact the heroine nearly as much as it should.
Finally, Briggs’ writing really isn’t as technically awesome as we remember it. We’re not sure if it’s specific to this book or just something we didn’t notice before, but Mercy’s voice struck us as a little…juvenile. The phrasing tends to be blunt and occasionally choppy, frequently tell-y, and Briggs has a bad tendency, at least in this book, to over-explain. We pretty consistently got one paragraph to explain new concepts in the context of the story…and an immediate follow up paragraph from Mercy to break it down even further, in case, y’know, we were too dumb to get it the first time.
All in all, this book, like most in the Mercy series, left us troubled. It’s a quick, easy, entertaining read, with an interesting premise and characters, but as always, the problematic issues get in the way of any true enjoyment we might have. On top of that, River Marked read to us like so much overcompensation for the failings of the rest of the series. It seemed to be scrambling to remedy an error, and even in that respect, the scrambling just didn’t work for us.