The Quality of Mercy opens in the spring of 1767, in the immediate aftermath of the events in Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger. It follows the fortunes of two central characters from that book: Sullivan, an Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, the son of a disgraced Liverpool slave-ship owner who hanged himself.
To avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing and scamming as he goes.
His destination is the colliery village where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
In this village, Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, live Billy's sister Nan and her miner husband, James Bordon. Their three sons are all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only 7, is enjoying his last summer above ground. The terrible conditions in which mineworkers laboured are vividly evoked, and Bordon has dreams of escaping the mine with his family.
Meanwhile in London a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp is claiming financial compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Ashton triumphs in court, but not before his beautiful sister, Jane, has encountered Erasmus Kemp and found herself powerfully attracted to him despite their polarised views on slavery.
She discovers that Kemp wants to spend some of his sugar and slavery fortune on Britain's new industries: coal-mining and steel. A landowner father of a friend of Jane's tips him off about Lord Spenton's mines, for sale in East Durham, and Kemp sees the business opportunity he has been waiting for.
Thus he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for . . .
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Here, immediately, you know that you are in the hands of a master . . . There are several strands to the novel, interwoven with rare artistry and assurance . . . Barry Unsworth does all this. The Quality of Mercy is the work of one who is both artist and craftsman. There is not a page without interest, not a sentence that rings false. It is gripping and moving, a novel about justice which is worthy of that theme. In short, it is a tremendous achievement, as good as anything this great novelist has written. - Scotsman
He is a historical novelist of a reliably old-fashioned sort: the writer who offers a plausible recreation of a bygone age and animates it with people whose motivations are consistent with the tenor of their time . . . the fact that his characters never turn into moral ciphers is one of his greatest strengths. [The Quality of Mercy] has all these qualities in spades - Independent
The big theme is power . . . Unsworth's 18th-century setting finds a correspondingly 18th-century feel in the fabric of his story: it is deeply sentimental, at time robustly comic . . . a silkily written potboiler, wonderfully well-realised, entirely engrossing. - Financial Times
Has all its predecessor's power to shock. This novel is immediately involving and immensely readable and may even be better than the [Booker-winning] earlier book. - Daily Mail
This gripping novel . . . stands alone as yet another example of the author's extraordinary ability to turn dry history into dramatic narrative . . . With so much happening on the page that is dramatic and plot-based - the many different narrative threads eventually tie together in an entirely satisfying fashion - it could be easy to overlook the instances of quiet psychological transformation that give this novel its particular power. - Sunday Times
Abundance of quality . . . rest assured this is a page turner. In other hands the book's oh so neat plotting - at times the story is almost practically symmetrical - might feel calculated. Unsworth however is as heartfelt as he is encouraging and his novel only seems more passionate for its formal precision. Mercy be, The Quality of Mercy has quality to spare. - Express (5 star review)
A superb evocation of life and politics in 18th century England. - Choice Magazine
For a novel so concerned with empathy, it keeps a cool head, resisting the sermonising, histrionics and sentimentalism that its emotive subject invites. Unsworth's is a vigorous, clear-eyed approach to history, electrified by his complete feel for the period, his neat bathetic wit and, like Sullivan himself, his natural gift for storytelling. - Sunday Telegraph
This is what might be called a Whig historical novel as the mercy of his title affects . . . the result is a slight slippage in tension, but not in interest because as one character remarks 'the ability to imagine the thoughts and feelings of others is a great deal rarer than might be thought'. Unsworth, though, has it in spades. - Evening Standard
There's no denying the depth of historic research that has gone into this book and the descriptions of the life in the Durham coal mines is particularly poignant. Equally impressive is the quality of the writing. Unsworth frequently uses long, and sometimes complex, sentences which force the reader to slow down and do much to draw the reader into the slower pace of the past. - Bookbag
A storyteller of skill and experience, Unsworth manages the many threads of his story adeptly, weaving an unashamedly old-fashioned tale that never fails to engage. Courtroom drama is counterpointed with picaresque, the pleasure gardens of London with the wretched misery of the coal mines. Like Sacred Hunger it is impeccably researched, its time and place painstakingly evoked - Literary Review
This is a complex, absorbing, richly detailed novel and the characters are drawn with extraordinary subtlety. Terrific. - The Times
Unsworth's grasp of the detail of these times is effortless and engaging . . . so leanly and feelingly told it makes a hungry read. - Herald
Unsworth's writing is as rich and authoritative as ever, his eye for the period detail as judicious . . . There's plenty in the vigorous narrative, then, for the reader to invest in, but what leaves the deepest impression is Unsworth's neat skewering of the period's socioeconomics . . . a fitting final chapter in a superbly bleak novel. - Guardian
Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in Durham. He was the author of many novels, including Pascali’s Island, which was shortlisted for the 1980 Booker Prize; Stone Virgin (1985); Sacred Hunger, which was joint winner of the 1992 Booker Prize; Morality Play, which was shortlisted for the 1995 Booker Prize; Losing Nelson (1999); The Songs of the King (2002); The Ruby in Her Navel (2006); Land of Marvels (2009); and The Quality of Mercy (2011), which was shortlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction. Barry Unsworth died in 2012.