Review: Danielle Vega's THE MERCILESS
For the longest time, I had meant to get around to Danielle Vega's young-adult novel of demonic possession The Merciless (2015). Recently, the book popped up on one of my Amazon lists (and I quickly discovered that there are now two additional novels set within The Merciless universe) and I decided, finally, to give the book a go. And I'm so glad that I did, feeling a bit foolish for not having read it for so long. The Merciless is lean, uncompromising, cinematic, heartbreaking, gruesome, and violent. In other words, I loved it.
The Merciless centers on protagonist Sofia Flores, a teenage girl encountering the typical problems of being the new kid at school and learning how to make friends. She quickly falls in with three other girls--Riley, Alexis, and Grace--but she also develops an interesting kinship with cool, mystery-girl Brooklyn and a few other secondary characters. Sofia feels tugged in two different directions--she enjoys the acceptance she feels with popular girls like Riley and Grace, but she remains intrigued by Brooklyn's darkness and interest in more offbeat topics like tattoos and piercings. Adding to Sofia's struggle is a troubling memory from her past and the lonely confines of her home, where she lives with her hardworking mother and aging grandmother. Vega hints early on that the grandmother's religious faith and spirituality will play a critical role in the story, and by the time the stunning climax rolls around, readers quickly learn that this character is far more knowledgeable about good and evil than she ever lets on.
When Brooklyn's behavior grows more outlandish (at least in the eyes of Riley and her friends), the novel's lengthy stretch of all-out horror begins. The girls--each of whom has her own sins to count--abduct Brooklyn and attempt to perform an exorcism, casting out the "demons" within her and restoring her goodness. Do the girls really believe that Brooklyn is possessed, or are they using their supposed religious faith as a mask to hide their own jealousies and insecurities? And how will Sofia balance her longing to be a part of the group with her desire to keep Brooklyn free from harm? The exorcism/torture sequence comprises a large part of The Merciless, with each passing chapter amplifying the horror and physical anguish that Riley and her friends force Brooklyn to endure. For a YA novel in particular, this is gory, gruesome stuff, with lots of bloodletting and burning, weapon improvisation, physical action, and other forms of boot-tough violence. The action rarely lets up and when it does, the novel still provides deep character insight into the psychological problems from which each of the young women suffer. And just when readers might think they know how the book will wrap up, Vega throws in a few more twists and turns for a final showdown that crackles with cinematic energy. As a long-time fan of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, I am always actively seeking out strong demonic possession stories, and I couldn't be happier that I found this one.
Danielle Vega's The Merciless can be found here, where you will also see links to The Merciless II: The Exorcism of Sofia Flores and the prequel The Merciless III: Origins of Evil. For fans of sharp, taut, not-a-word-wasted writing (and for lovers of stories like The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Last Exorcism), you can absolutely not go wrong with this one.