I’m going to say this upfront: were it not for the last 40 pages, this review would be much more positive.
The Merciless by Danielle Vega (actual name Danielle Rollins) is billed by several dozen reviewers as Mean Girls meets The Exorcist and while the Mean Girls comparison is more than deserved – the main character even drops a line about making a Burn Book at one point – the comparison to The Exorcist is a bit more spurious. Yes, there is an “exorcism” in the book but it’s not a professional one and it’s more violent than they’re supposed to be. A more appropriate description would be Mean Girls meets The Girl Next Door.
The story follows Army brat Sofia Flores after she moves to a new town in Mississippi and gets caught up in the weird schemes of a group of popular girls who want to ‘help’ the weird girl stop being so weird with the power of Jesus. Also Sofia’s mom is an atheist and this annoys her because Sofia wants to be religious and go to church. Now I know I’m a godless heathen and everything but this seems just…so unrealistic to me. Even the religious teenagers I knew never wanted to go to church. It was around this time that I thought the book was going to wind up being religious propaganda under a thin veil of horror – sort of an anti-Footloose horror if you will. Having finished the book…I’m still not sure if this is the case. It sort of fluctuates wildly between the two extremes. I guess it’s possible that Danielle Vega was just writing a story with no agenda, but where’s the fun in that? Suffice it to say…Spoiler Alert.
We begin our story during Sofia’s first day at school. During lunch she meets resident weirdo (ie the Goth) Brooklyn and the group of popular girls led by Riley. In typical high school story fashion Brooklyn quickly extols the virtues of avoiding Riley and her flunkies because, unlike any actual high school in the world, the popular girls wield incredible power over everyone else. This is never really explained as Riley is a wholly unlikable person; but she’s pretty so I guess it’s all okay. Sofia also meets Brooklyn’s friend Charlie who she falls in love with immediately because this is high school and teenagers are ridiculous.
Midway through her first day Sofia finds a skinned cat laying in the middle of a pentagram. She reacts to this with not nearly enough surprise and, when Riley shows up a few moments later it seems like the story is going to give us a typical “ew the new girl did something she obviously didn’t do, let’s all hate her” type story. Instead, Riley just kind of rolls her eyes and mutters about Brooklyn being weird then invites Sofia to join her and her friends. This reaction is…suspect to say the least. Don’t worry though, it goes nowhere and the cat only ever comes up one more time in the story as an offhanded comment.
So pretty quickly Sofia is enlisted to spy on Brooklyn for the popular girls because Riley just wants to do the good Christian thing and help her out. She’s seriously worried about Brooklyn you guys and just wants to bring her the light of Jesus so she’ll stop being so weird. Her friends Grace and Alexis agree with this, though less enthusiastically than Riley probably would like. Initially Sofia says no but then she gets invited to by Brooklyn to hang out after school where they go to a tattoo parlor and she finds out that Brooklyn has tattoos. Oh nooooooooo! Portrait of a troubled teen right here. Brooklyn also convinces Sofia to let her pierce her eyebrow which makes Sofia black out…for some reason. Also Brooklyn’s eyes flash red for a second and the seeds are planted for the terrible ending.
Soon after, she’s invited to a party at Brookly’s and Riley convinces her to go. Turns out Brooklyn lives in the bad part of town and there are many a ne’r-do-well at the party. Sofia is accosted by the best character in the book: a man with a tattoo of a skull on her face who asks her if she’d rather die by getting her face eaten or by beaten to death. Sofia wisely says face eating and the man fist bumps her and thanks her for helping him win a bet and the story teaches us a lesson about not judging people based on their appearances that it will thoroughly ruin at book’s end.
Long story short, Sofia and Charlie do some dry humpin’ and Sofia sees Brooklyn making out with and probably about to have sex with Riley’s boyfriend. She tells Riley who seems to react surprisingly well…until she sneaks into Sofia’s house in the middle of the night and tells her to come with her without asking questions. She leads her to an abandoned house they had gone to earlier. The bulk of the book takes place in this house and it ain’t pretty.
So the girls have kidnapped Brooklyn and they have her tied up in the basement of the abandoned house because they want to perform an exorcism on her. Riley has nailed all the windows in the house shut and fastened padlocks to all the doors. What follows is about 150 pages of Riley, Alexis, and Grace torturing Brooklyn in the name of GAWD and just generally performing the worst exorcism in the history of exorcisms. Also the girls get progressively more drunk as the night goes on – particularly Riley.
If you want to know all the gory details read the book, but suffice it to say it’s genuinely disturbing and well-written enough as to not fall into the category of exploitation just for the sake of exploitation. The main thrust of this section is Sofia trying to silently collude with Brooklyn and think of a way out of the house. It’s tense, it’s thrilling, and you want Sofia to survive…even though she kinda sucks. She keeps trying to justify what’s going on around her and think of ways that Riley isn’t terrible for torturing a girl. I get it, teenagers are hormonal and crave acceptance…but I think even most teenagers would think things had gone too far about 100 pages before Sofia finally accepts that Riley’s crazy.
Throughout this section, there are various hints that not everything is what it seems. First of all, Brooklyn convinces the popular girls that they need to confess their sins in order to be pure for the exorcism to work. They do, but of course their lying at first and as the story goes one they confess more and more details about their terrible sins and it even hints that Sofia’s got a dark past – more on that later. So we slowly find out that the girls aren’t the good little Christians they pretend to be and there were many many times that I thought it was gonna turn out one or all of them were WITCHES – Sofia even thinks to herself how odd it was that Riley didn’t really react to the dead cat at the beginning of the book. This, sadly didn’t happen. The biggest red herring is a porcelain doll of Riley’s that she seems to carry with her everywhere as it appears both at her house and the abandoned house. Not only that but during the course of the night Brooklyn bites Riley’s cheek and when Sofia sees the doll later it has a new crack on its face. That never comes up again.
So Alexis dies, Riley turns on Sofia after she tries to drug the wine they’ve all been drinking, and the house burns down due to Brooklyn using her brain to knock over a candle. They escape and Brooklyn tells Sofia not to tell anyone what happened…and my spirits died. So Riley being a psycho and torturing Brooklyn; doesn’t matter. The fact that the inciting incident was Brooklyn mackin’ on Riley’s boyfriend and it turns out that he wasn’t even Riley’s boyfriend; who cares? The fact that Alexis’s last words before falling to her death were “Riley no!” and only Riley was there to see what happened and declare it was suicide; forget about it. See it turns out that Riley was right. Brooklyn DOES have a demon in her. The last 40 pages are Brooklyn using her demon powers to kill Riley and Grace. And that dark secret from Sofia’s past? Turns out she pushed a girl in front of a train once after being bullied a bunch. That “twist” woulda been more impactful had it not been projected pretty much from the beginning.
What wasn’t projected: Sofia’s also got a demon in her. Maybe? I mean it’s kind of unclear because Sofia just says “The evil is inside me,” and Brooklyn says “We don’t kill our own.”
This book was such bullshit. I mean, not really. Like I said in the beginning, had it not been for the last 40 pages I would have really liked it. It’s well-written, Riley’s psychosis is actually pretty well drawn and the slow escalation of violence is done really well. I wish it had either ended with Riley being a demon – fulfilling all those weird little hints about her peppered throughout – or there had been no supernatural aspect at all. There’s nothing I hate more than an obvious villain being vindicated – that’s why I hate the movie version of The Mist. Again, it’s really hard to tell if this was supposed to be a Christian book or if it just kind of accidentally became one. It’s worth a read, it really is and I’ll probably check out a few more of Danielle Vega’s book; just be prepared for that bullshit ending. Or just shut the book after they get out of the house and pretend nothing else happened.
And before anyone gets all pissy with me, I got no problem with books that have a Christian bent – hell The Stand has some pretty major Christian overtones – I just don’t like when agenda outweighs story.