Rating: 3.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel


No one knows why nine months ago the adults in Brockton started morphing into twisted masses of decaying flesh that coalesced into large mutated creatures, but the teenagers at Jefferson and Moore high schools came together in varying ways to survive the monstrous “Growns/Dragons.” Jefferson has a “democratic” leadership led by student body president, Kyle, who’s been tasked to find help. When Kay Kim tries to present an idea to the remaining leadership and learns a shattering secret, she is forced out and left to die. Fortunately, she is saved by cheerleaders from Moore High, who have a thriving society—food, shelter, and safety. While impressed, Kay is horrified that they are governed by a king named Max, but she’s desperate for asylum.

However, asylum isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as Kay can barely stomach bowing to a overlord who runs Moore on a feudal system from his favorite video game. Moreover, asylum isn’t free, and Kay must be invited into one of the groups and face a dragon to earn the right to stay and petition King Max for aid to Jefferson. When Kay discovers a faction pursuing democracy, she quickly falls into their machinations, despite knowing Max is convinced she’s a spy. Within days, her presence shakes loose secrets and threatens the core of Moore and Jefferson’s societies. With things spiraling out of control, neither school’s government may survive the fallout.

The Merciless King of Moore High has an interesting premise, and I hoped to really enjoy it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into it. The political intrigue works for the setting, but wasn’t intriguing to me. Since this is the core of the narrative, I struggled to stay engaged. Like many dystopian stories, Merciless explores ideas of choice and autonomy and how removal of guard rails exposes the darker sides of ruling, in a framework of political, courtly machinations fostered by underlying trauma and teenage decision making. The story is told from three POVs: Nirali Chaudri, student vice president and doctor at Jefferson; Randall Brick, Max’s best friend and his Captain of the Guard; and Kay, the main POV character.

Moore is like Lord of the Flies, while Jefferson is more Animal Farm. Max and Brick killed a dragon the day it happened. With their heroic action (and a vision from Max’s own personal Merlin), Max is crowned king. Max’s word is law, and being at Moore means slaying dragons to expand their safe zone to take back Brockton. Most students go along with this edict, except a small dissenting group that wants a democracy—without a plan for creating one. The school is stable and the students are thriving, but the underlying discord means Merlin (the real power at Moore) has her work cut out for her maintaining the peace and bolstering King Max as their lord and savior.

On the other hand, Jefferson is starving in filth and infestation. A committee was quickly established to quell panic, but the leaders have no plans. Everyone has simply hunkered down to wait for Kyle. They live by ten laws, with the holy, unspeakable one being no one can question if Kyle is still alive. Like Merlin, Nirali knows that maintaining order at any cost is the name of the game now. The students will start dying within a week, and all she can do is hold the ship together until it sinks. Her need to hold onto power isn’t as blatant as Max’s, but Nirali, like Kay, is convinced she always knows best.

Brick is my favorite POV character. Though he is the quietest vocally and spiritually, he has the most resonance. Despite his appearance and reputation, he’s kind and does his best to help Kay. His love and loyalty to Max are the backbone that holds their society together, as he keeps Max as grounded as possible given how quickly the power went to his head. Max immediately goes from a fraught relationship with his parents who made him feel invisible to being doted on as a king. Max also seems to love Brick as much as he resents him. Brick is his best friend, but also the recipient of his father’s affection; Brick is his loyal second-in-command, but also the actual slayer of the initial dragon. In Max’s mind, Brick could easily usurp him in the affections of his subjects, which is a toxic mixture that can explode with a moment of imbalance.

Kay is an easily influenced wrecking ball. She “can’t keep her mouth shut when she knows she’s right” no matter the cost. Though pleading with Max to help Jefferson, her utter disdain undermines her cause. Kay believes lying is evil—full stop. She clings to her version of the world: democracy is always fair; leaders never lie; and there is no greater good worth lying for. Kay comes into Moore pretty hot—challenging the people who saved her life minutes into being there. She’s quick to judge the totalitarianism at Moore, but blissfully ignorant to its less extreme sibling, authoritarianism at Jefferson. Her leaders set the rules and breaking the sacred one is punishable by three days without food, but Kay fails to see how this crushes free thought and is as merciless as Max. Kay is the avatar of civility and honesty, so her teenage, completely black-and-white worldview makes sense, but being dogmatic is her whole personality. Having her grapple with the discomfort of acknowledging someone’s point of view/reasoning and still stand up for her convictions creates a more interesting character and a nice developmental arc. I don’t mind characters who make mistakes and who don’t learn from them, but make them interesting. Kay is one-note, and spending time mostly in her POV was trying.

That being said, overall Merciless is good. It’s not a romance, and the main romantic element is between two straight teens with a fleeting glimpse of queerness being a kiss between two young women. The story is actually more mystery than fantasy, as the Where’s Kyle? of it all mixes into the power plays. There’s minimal world building, but it’s sufficient. There are some of the standard superman antics, such as three dragons (whose smallest are the size of SUVs) rolling up into an enclosed space and being taken down somehow, or a character getting shot in the thigh, but basically walking it off a day later with occasional lightheadedness, but they aren’t overly distracting. The secondary characters, dragon-killing training, and fights are well done, as is the pacing. The first half is a bit slower and heavier, but it sets up the domino effect of the latter half. The ending is open-ended, but darkly funny for its short-sightedness and has a sacrificial air that Moore would enjoy.

I think the bar may have been set too high for The Merciless King of Moore High. I’ve read many YA and non-YA books with the same beats and settings, including adults becoming monsters. The best ones have a unique angle, compelling characters, and/or both; for me, that isn’t true here. However, it’s still entertaining. I adored Brick and found Nirali and Merlin’s chess master sparks nice. The environment and magnitude of Moore’s operation is vibrant, and I’m sure others, especially that target audience, will find more to like.