The Merciless by Danielle Vega
Genre: Young adult horror
Release date: June 12 2014
Source: ARC from publisher
The nitty-gritty: A thrilling, terrifying and shockingly gruesome story that held me under its spell until the bitter end.
We walk past the living room, where the sleeping bags are rolled and stacked next to the pillows in a corner. None of the tea lights are lit, and it makes this place feel emptier than before. I realize how alone we are out here, with nothing but dirt and the skeletons of half-built houses surrounding us. Wind rattles the plastic at the windows. I imagine it rolling over miles of empty land to press against this house, and suddenly it seems strong enough to rip off walls.
As I’m preparing to write this review, I’m glancing over the notes I took while reading The Merciless, and they are very scant indeed. This was one of those rare reading experiences where I was so caught up in the story that I forgot to take review notes. This book will grab you by your throat and it won’t let go, even when you’re gasping and about to faint from lack of oxygen. Readers beware: on the back of the book is a warning that states “For Mature Audiences Only.” Take heed! I would not let my thirteen-year-old read this, and probably not even my fifteen-year-old. No, there isn’t any sex to speak of. But there are some extremely scary and heart-racing slasher-type scenes that are not for the faint of heart. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, other than to briefly set up the story. Going into this book blind is the best way to experience it, and I wouldn’t want to ruin anything for you. In fact, try to avoid reading the story blurb if you can (I feel like it gives way too much information.) Danielle Vega takes mindfuckery to a whole new level with The Merciless, and I can honestly say I was surprised by the twisty turns of events in this story.
We’ve seen this set-up before—the new girl in town awkwardly tries to fit in her first day of school—but you’ve never seen it done like this before. Sofia has just moved to a small town in Mississippi and is trying her best to make friends. She meets an interesting girl named Brooklyn, a cute boy named Charlie, and a group of queen bees named Riley, Grace and Alexis. All of these characters come together one very fateful night, and no one will ever be the same again.
And that’s all you’re getting from me, as far as the plot goes. Vega’s writing is as sharp and honed as a knife’s edge. Her present tense narrative is told in first person from Sofia’s POV, and even though each character is well-developed and I honestly would have loved to read this story from other points of view, I thought giving Sofia the reins was a good choice. Sofia transitions from “innocent new girl” to someone who is forced to make snap decisions that could mean life or death, and I loved her growing realization that her normally boring life has just become a nightmare.
Vega knows how to write a suspenseful story. Each scene builds steadily from innocent to slightly creepy to downright terrifying. It’s one of those reading experiences where you finally look up from the page and wonder “How in the world did we get here??” In the beginning I tried to guess where Vega was headed with the story, but after being wrong several times, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride. And boy, what a ride! Besides the build-up of suspense, she plants small but effective details into the story that make the reader uneasy—but you don’t realize why you feel that way. For example, at one point Sofia is walking up to her house after school, and a garden snake crosses her path. It’s not a big deal, but it seems to suggest that there are bad things to come.
At its heart, this is a story about secrets, and each character is hiding something. Riley, the girl with the perfect hair and make-up who is the instigator of most of the horror in this book, believes that each girl should confess their sins before God, in order to be cleansed. This religious fervor simply made the story more creepy for me, hence my comparison to Stephen King’s Carrie.
For the most part, this is realistic thriller fiction, although I was surprised at the end to find a twist that I wasn’t expecting. About three-quarters of the way through the story I started to wonder how Vega was going to wrap things up. The characters find themselves stuck in one dire situation after another, and I couldn’t think of any scenario that didn’t end tragically for everyone. But she surprised me yet again by taking the story in a direction that had me gasping and saying “WTF??”
There were only one or two plot contrivances that seemed more convenient to the story than realistic (and I can’t even tell you what they are!), but they are easily forgiven. If you love thrillers, and especially if you love horror, The Merciless will blow you away. I can’t wait to see what Danielle Vega has in store for us next.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. The above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version.
You can find The Merciless here: