Brooklyn Stevens sits in a pool of her own blood, tied up and gagged. No one outside of these dank basement walls knows she’s here. No one can hear her scream.
Sofia Flores knows she shouldn’t have gotten involved. When she befriended Riley, Grace, and Alexis on her first day at school, she admired them, with their perfect hair and their good-girl ways. They said they wanted to save Brooklyn. They wanted to help her. Sofia didn’t realize they believed Brooklyn was possessed.
Now, Riley and the girls are performing an exorcism on Brooklyn—but their idea of an exorcism is closer to torture than salvation. All Sofia wants is to get out of this house. But there is no way out. Sofia can’t go against the other girls . . . unless she wants to be next. . . . – [X]
So, I am going to admit that this was purely a cover-related purchase for me. I saw all the pink, noticed the horror theme and my entire brain went, “Yes. Do want.” (Well, that and the fact that I got enough points at my local bookstore to have to pay only half of the hardcover price, so, woo!) Anyway, Danielle Vega’s The Merciless is … intense. I read it all in a single afternoon. There were some pages that I could barely read. It was an awkward manoeuvre, wherein I tried to read while simultaneously covering one of my eyes because that will help, right? *shakes head sadly*
As the summary says, Sofia is the new kid in school. Her mother is working full-time, her grandmother has had a stroke, and Sofia is almost always alone. At this new school though, she is befriended by the popular kids- Riley, Grace, and Alexis. Now, straight away, you/we/the readers can tell they’re a bit weird. They talk a lot about “saving” people in the context of religion and you just can’t understand why Sofia would want to hang out with them except- the thing that Vega does very convincingly though is the portrayal of relationships between girls in high schools. Not all girls in all high schools, obviously, but there’s something about this scenario that makes total sense to me. If you’re the new kid at school and the populars want you (especially if the populars in your last school bullied you, as they did Sofia), you are going to respond positively to their flattery and attention and the sense of social security they provide, laugh awkwardly at jokes that weren’t funny at all, and ignore the glint of fanaticism in their eyes. It makes sense to me because I’ve been there and done that. Luckily I haven’t had to deal with what happens to Sofia next …
A moment of high school drama (involving a boy, of course) escalates into Riley somehow having dragged and tied Brooklyn up in the basement of an abandoned house. Riley has in her possession copious amounts of wine, a butcher knife, salt, and … her friends- and that’s pretty much what is so interesting to me about this premise. There is no serial killer, there is no crazed boyfriend, no stalker, no mysterious guests who sweep into your house murder you and leave without a trace. There are just a bunch of girls who turn their self-loathing into suspicion and hatred for each other. Basically, it is a regular high school story about internalized misogyny that is told through the lens of horror. And, oh, just a reminder- the horror is pretty horrific.
I really wish I could talk about the twist at the end, but that would be too spoilerific, so I will do my round-up here instead.
Why You Wouldn’t Like It: Here’s a spoiler I do think I need to talk about- Grace. She’s black. And she’s described as having “velvety chocolate skin” which kind of annoys me. And she is most definitely a minor character- until she is horrifically mutilated and killed. This is a major deal-breaker for me.
Also, I love horror stories that play around with tropes and subvert power structures. While Vega does play around with the high school tropes, there was no clever subversion of the horror genre and that left me a little disappointed. In the end, though, it’s fine because it was probably not Vega’s intention to do so …
Why You Would Like It: The intention, probably, was to deliver a horror story with a surprising twist- and Vega succeeded on that front.
All Hallow’s Read: Is it scary? Yup. Lots of torture, body horror, and psychological torment. Be sure to warn your readers if you choose to gift this one. I may not, personally, be a 100% behind this recommendation but I cannot deny that it delivered the chills it promised.