The King’s Mercy

Written by Lori Benton
Review by Irene Colthurst

Alex MacKinnon, a Scottish fighter in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1740s Britain, finds himself paroled and exiled to colonial North Carolina, and then indentured to Edmund Carey, the owner of Severn plantation. MacKinnon wishes to keep his head down and serve out his seven years, but he can’t help but offer comfort to the plantation’s slaves where he can, just as he can’t help but be wary of the traveling preacher Rev. Pauling. He can’t help being drawn to Carey’s stepdaughter, Joanna, either, especially after she describes her dream of emancipating the plantation’s slaves.

The novel is both brooding and a precisely rendered portrayal of a colonial-era slave plantation. The enslaved characters are allowed to speak and act directly, and Benton carefully allows each to act with as much agency as possible. The fraught intimacy of master-slave, or in this case mostly mistress-slave, relationships really comes through.

Ranging from Britain in the era of the rebellion to the hold of a ship bound across the Atlantic to the lowland of North Carolina, The King’s Mercy balances its scope with an intense focus on MacKinnon and Joanna’s interior lives. In the eyes of some, a plantation owner’s daughter might not merit much sympathy, but Benton gives the reader Joanna’s conflict in a way that is well-grounded in her personal history. Her wish for Severn does not, therefore, look very anachronistic.

The novel’s balance between the broader forces that drive its narrative and the emotional lives of these characters creates an engrossing cinematic quality. Fans of Southern history, colonial history, and the connections between British and American history across the imperial Atlantic will love The King’s Mercy.