Posted by Holly
I’ve never been much of a fan of Young Adult fiction. Blasphemous, I know. Ever since I was young, I buried my nose into the horror books that were intended for adults. This isn’t because I think Young Adult fiction is bad – a lot of it is really high quality, and perfect for its audience. It just wasn’t for me, and I occasionally felt that it was either watered down, or talked down to me about more serious subjects. With this in mind, I’ve come to appreciate Young Adult fiction more as I’ve gotten older, and I truly enjoy finding books in the genre that I connect with.
Recently, I attended a panel at New York Comic Con about horror Young Adult fiction, hoping to find something that caught my attention. When author Danielle Vega described her novel, The Merciless, as a throwback to 90s slasher films, with a heavy dose of Mean Girls, I was intrigued. I ended up grabbing a copy of the book that day, and finished it within hours of beginning it.
Sofia Flores is used to being the new girl. Being the child of an army nurse, she generally starts a new school every six months, and almost never makes a real connection with any of her classmates. That seems to change when she starts school in Friend, MS, where he almost immediately is befriended by Riley, a beautiful and popular girl that Sofia considers way out of her friendship league. Being in Riley’s clique seems too good to be true, and that might be right; for one, they’re convinced that another classmate, Brooklyn, is a demon that needs to be saved from herself. And they want Sofia’s help to do so.
The central event in this novel is an exorcism, but it functions more as the set dressing, a visceral depiction of the cruelty in people themselves. More so, the horror explored in this novel comes from a place that is entirely human and relatable. High school is a difficult time for most people at best, and we’ve all felt the isolating fear that we’re too different to ever truly fit in with anyone or be accepted. This story explores the way that those fears can drive people to make choices that they know are wrong, even to the point of hurting others. Sofia doesn’t want to torture Brooklyn, but she’s faced with few options, and the safest one for her is to play along. There is also some commentary to be found here on the toxic culture teenage girls often find themselves in, and how cruel women can be to each other to ensure their own safety in it.
On a high note, having the main character as a woman of color is wonderful. It doesn’t wholly define her character, but her identity as a Mexican American is relevant to the story and the way she perceives the events that are unfolding around her. There is a nice moment between Sofia and Grace – an African American girl in the group – in which they briefly discuss the racism of the town they live in. It’s only a small moment, but those small moments matter in fiction. It’s more than simply passing the Bechdel test and allowing two women to speak to each other; it’s two young women of color speaking about issues that matter to them as individuals. These moments that Vega scattered in throughout gave the book an element that grounds it in reality, even with the over the top events that are happening around these characters.
The characterization in the book was occasionally uneven, which was something of a weak point for me. This is a book that uses the classic tropes associated with character archetypes, and attempts to both play them straight and subvert them. Riley is the quintessential “mean girl” in many regards, but there is also some vulnerability being played with throughout the novel. However, the religious zealot card is played straight for the most part, and in combination with her queen bee personality, she does occasionally feel more like a caricature than an actual character. Brooklyn suffers from the same fate, with her bad girl, rebel without a cause persona giving very little depth to the way she’s experiencing this traumatic series of events.
Coming in at under 300 pages, this is a rather short novel, and its rapid fire pace supports a very quick read. This is both a positive and a negative point towards the book. In part, this supports the “slasher film” feel of the story; characters are quickly established, and then dispatched unapologetically, and the story is always moving forward without pausing too often to look back. However, there are elements of this story that I felt could have used a bit more exploration, especially when it comes to Sofia herself. As our central character, our “final girl,” she was the one that we really needed to care about, and I wish there had been more time alotted to this. Another 50-100 pages could have really given the story room to breathe.
The ending is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of deal, depending on if you want to regard the story as supernatural or not. The questioning that comes from Sofia in the majority of the book regarding what’s real and what isn’t, is a nice touch, and so to have her suspicions confirmed at the end might take away from some of the effect.
Overall, this is a fun attempt at a slasher flick in book form, and in many regards, it succeeds in its goals. However, there is perhaps less commentary or subversion here on the genre than some of the stronger 90s slashers, like Scream, had, and reads more like a love letter to teen scream films in general. It doesn’t water things down like many young adult books do, but it also doesn’t really elevate the story to the point where I’d compare it to a more adult geared horror novel. I would still recommend this to any teen readers looking for a fun genre book, or adults that want a quick and creepy treat.
Rating: 3 out of 5. It has its flaws, but is overall a pretty strong book!
Violence level: Pretty high, actually. It manages to really lay out its appreciation for the slasher genre through its creative kills, and the horrible aftermath of each of them.
Scariness level: Medium. There’s not as much creeping dread as I usually like in my horror stories, but definitely a lot of homicidal teenage girls on the loose.
Bechdel test: Passes! And it passes quite well, as detailed above, with a variety of different kinds of women having relevant conversations to their own experiences, and not usually ones that involve men.
Mako Mori test: Passes. This story is all about Sofia, and her journey to figure out what the right thing to do is in an impossible situation – and how she can actually manage to do it.