Monday, April 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Merciless by Danielle Vega

TITLE: The Merciless

AUTHOR: Danielle Vega

GENRE: horror

PLOT SUMMARY: Sofia Flores is used to always being the new girl, the one without a real social group. She finds people to kill time with at every new school, and then, six months later, she moves, like clockwork. So she's surprised when the trio of popular girls at her new school in an ultra-religious town in rural Mississippi not only take a liking to her, but induct her into the group by baptizing her in the school bathroom. Sofia, for the first time ever, feels truly included, like she's really part of the gang. So, naturally, when she finds out the clique's leader's boyfriend is cheating on her with the school bad girl, Brooklyn, Sofia tells her everything she saw. The leader of the pack says that can "save" Brooklyn, but Sofia isn't sure what she means by that, until she comes to the clique's usual meeting spot and finds Brooklyn tied up and gagged in the basement, the other girls preparing for an exorcism. Certain that Brooklyn's possessed by the Devil, the other girls are determined to banish the demon, no matter how much damage it may do to the host, while Sofia must find a way to rescue Brooklyn without putting herself in harm's way.

FIRST THOUGHTS: I loved this book. Like, really, really loved it. I don't think of myself as much of a horror fan, but the spooky and atmospheric tone of the book drew me in instantly, and I read it all in one day. I was beyond thrilled when I found out that this book was the first in a series, and I actually went out to buy the second book, so I can be prepared for the release of the third this summer. I've been talking it up to all my friends, too. Admittedly, I'm worried I may be over-hyping it a bit, but seriously, this book is great. Keep reading to find out why!

THOUGHTS ON PLOT: The best way I can think of to describe this book is Stephen King meets "Mean Girls." Or, if you prefer, "The Craft," but in reverse. What starts off as a standard high school drama quickly sinks into a horror show as Sofia becomes more entwined with the other girls and their madness. This isn't a scare-a-minute book; it takes its time, slowly building as things gradually get worse and worse, with only a few really big scares. This helps to make the really scary moments leave that much more of an impact, and I've always enjoyed the slow, creeping sort of horror more than the jumpscare-based horror most movies tend to favor. It's like watching a trainwreck in slow motion; you know everything's going to go to Hell, probably very shortly, but it's impossible to look away, especially once the shit really hits the fan. My only real complaint about the plot was the romantic subplot. It's very minor -- so minor, in fact, that it very easily could've been cut and nothing would've been lost. The relationship is pure insta-love, and it feels pointless and boring compared to the rest of the book. The love interest himself is only in about three scenes, which is part of what makes the relationship so weak, but it's also why the romance didn't bog down the plot more -- it's barely even there, to the point where you sort of forget about it until it's brought up again. I'm also unsure of how I feel about the book's ending -- specifically, the very last line. It definitely caught me by surprise, and it feels like a fitting twist, but I'm unsure of whether or not I like it. Mainly, I'm worried about how the sequels will handle it. If they do it well, great, but it's a twist that's really easy to handle poorly. Time will tell if the sequels drop the ball on it.

9 / 10

THOUGHTS ON CHARACTERS: This book has a relatively small cast; the protagonist, Sofia, the clique of girls, Riley, Grace, and Alexis, and the girl they're trying to "save," Brooklyn. There's also Sofia's family, Riley's boyfriend, and the boy that Sofia takes an interest in, but they're all such minor players that they don't get any real development, and aren't nearly as memorable as the core five. Sofia is a deeply endearing and likable protagonist, and even as she does some morally questionable things to survive, she's still easy to root for, and incredibly sympathetic to the audience. Sofia is also our narrator, and her voice helps build the world the story is set in, and clue us in to what she thinks is coming next -- and how wrong she often is. Riley serves as the antagonist for much of the book, and she is terrifying. She alternates between being charitable, friendly, and forgiving, and being vengeful, hateful, and ruthless, but the shifts never feel forced -- and both sides of her feel very genuine. She's not faking her concern for the other girls; she really is that messed up. Riley firmly believes she's doing the right thing, which only serves to make her both more pitiable, and more threatening. She's essentially every condescending-yet-well-meaning fundamentalist, mixed with Regina George and Cher Horowitz, and taken to its logical, terrifying extreme. Grace and Alexis don't receive quite as much depth as Sofia and Riley, but neither of them are flat characters. They're not just lackeys to Riley (as much as Alexis acts like she is sometimes), they're their own people with their own motivations, and their own issues that act as obstacles towards them as they try to get through the night, one way or another. By far my favorite character, though, was Brooklyn. Brooklyn is obnoxious, condescending, rude, and sarcastic, but she's so well-written and sympathetic that it's hard not to root for her, even when it's unclear whether or not we should be. Even when she's not at her most likable, I still found myself cheering her on, especially as she talks back to Riley even as she's being tortured -- it's hard not to admire her tenacity. She's the anti-Riley in terms of her values and the things she says, but deep down, the two of them are just alike, which makes her a great foil, as well as the perfect victim.

8 / 10

THOUGHTS ON WRITING STYLE: The atmospheric writing of this novel is by far one of its greatest strengths. It builds a tense, uneasy tone right from the get-go, and helps the reader identify with Sofia's increasing discomfort. The atmosphere the prose builds is spooky, and reminds me of old Gothic horror stories, placed in a modern, but isolated, setting. It's also a very fast-paced story -- most of the book takes place over one awful night, with some chapters covering all the drama that can unfold in a mere five minutes. It takes a few chapters for the action to really pick up, but once it does, it's a wild ride. And the preceding chapters don't feel like a waste -- they serve to build the characters and get us invested in them and their relationships before everything goes downhill.

8 / 10

THOUGHTS ON POLITICAL STUFF: Five leading ladies here, with two of them being WOC -- including the protagonist, who is Mexican-American. In fact, there are barely any male characters in the story at all; even the protagonist's family is just her, her grandmother, and her mother. This isn't exactly a "girl power" story (in fact, the plot hinges on how terrible teenage girls can be to one another), but it is refreshing to see such a female-driven novel. There is a bit of slut-shaming, but the character who does it is clearly meant to be in the wrong, and given the setting, it's not exactly surprising. There's also a lot of talk of mental illness -- not to mention some "you're crazys" thrown around, which could be viewed as ableist, though probably not intentionally so -- and Sofia is shown to have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts in the past. I'm of two minds of how religion is portrayed in the book. On the one hand, the plot is driven by religion-based hatred and hysteria, but on the other, Sofia at one point reflects on how religion can be a beautiful, positive force in someone's life, and while she's not religious herself, she's tolerant of the others' beliefs, and even expresses an interest in them when they offer to induct her into their group. Not to mention the fact that people on both sides of the theology thing are viewed in varying shades of gray. (Though the various twists and turns in the book throw his into question. I'm not sure how to explain it without spoiling it -- read the book and you'll see what I mean.) Now, I'm not religious in the least, so I'm probably not the best person to judge, but I never viewed the book as being anti-Christianity or pro-Christianity. More a story about how religion does not a good person make -- but a lack of religion doesn't necessarily signify that someone's a bad person, either.

7 / 10

FINAL THOUGHTS: I can't wait to read the sequel to this book -- I actually just got my hands on it yesterday, and I'm sure I'll be starting it soon. With such a strong start, I'm excited to see where the series will go, and I really hope this doesn't turn out to be one of those series that takes a swan dive in terms of quality after the first book. Danielle Vega is a good enough writer that I have faith in her ability to keep the series afloat. If you're a fan of horror and Southern Gothic stories, I'd definitely recommend this book -- it's one of my new favorites, and I hope it'll be one of yours, too.


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