Angel: Long Night’s Journey by Brett Matthews and Joss Whedon: C-

From the back cover:
An enemy from Angel’s past has come to L.A., and enlisted three powerful supernatural creatures to break Angel’s spirit before killing him. In one catastrophic night, Angel has to figure out who’s after him, and then bring him down, in a climactic battle above the glittering Los Angeles skyline.

Wow, this is really lousy. It’s written at least partly by Joss, but it’s so lackluster that it’d pass for something written by Keith R. A. DeCandido.

The basic plot is thus: a boobalicious snake lady (Joss seems to like these, since one appears in the Buffy season 8 comics), a fiery stone guy, and a knight with a glowy sword all attack Angel and are eventually bested. A symbol on the knight’s chest (Joss seems to like this idea, too, since it also figures into the season 8 comics) clues him in to the fact that his foe is a Chinese vampire he once met.

Turns out the Chinese vamp is upset because he was supposed to be the champion vamp with a soul but instead Angel has that role. This plot is pretty irksome, because it all of a sudden introduces notions like that when Angel was cursed, he was just a test subject for the real deal, and that perhaps the soul he received isn’t even his. It’s annoying and vague and I’m happy all of these ideas were dropped along with Dark Horse’s publication of Angel comics after this miniseries.

The art is competent enough except that nobody looks like they should. I conducted a test by obscuring all but one panel, which featured Cordelia and Wesley, and asking my Whedon-loving coworker, “Who are these people?” She stared at it for a full minute and could not hazard a guess, even though she’d surmised the answer was probably Whedon-related. Cordelia comes off the worst, looking either trampy or middle-aged, and sometimes both at once. Still, it’s so nice to see her appear in a comic at all that I have revised the grade slightly upward from the D this dreck truly deserves.

Avatar by John Passarella: C+

avatarFrom the back cover:
When Angel arrived in Los Angeles, he assumed he’d find enough evil to keep himself busy for, well… eternity. Up until now, he’s had his hands full in real time. So when Cordelia suggests starting up a web site for their detective agency, he’s hesitant. As Doyle puts it, “People in trouble want to interface with a face.”

Soon, though, the police discover a trail of desiccated corpses stretching across the city. The only thing that binds these victims (other than their cause of death) is their pastime pursuit: online chatting. One by one, they are being hunted by a techno-savvy demon. And when this monster has claimed his final victim, he will have completed a ritual that extends the arm of his evil far beyond the reaches of even the Internet…

Much like Ghoul Trouble, a Buffy the Vampire Slayer book by the same author, Avatar features a pretty lame plot brightened by some entertaining moments between the characters and a good feel for each character’s voice. It occurs early in season one, seemingly before episode eight, “I Will Remember You,” because Angel doesn’t seem to have seen Buffy since he left Sunnydale.

Frankly, the less said about the plot of Avatar the better. It makes sense, I suppose, but there’s nothing great about it. I did find one thing interesting, though. Often, media tie-in books are prohibited from having anything genuinely important happen to the characters. In Avatar, that still holds true but some events are inflated to seem like they are very important. For example, after Angel saves a bunch of teenagers being held prisoner by some sewer-dwelling demon bugs—slipping into vampface in the process—one of the teens says something like, “What are you?” Angel slinks away and the text reads, “Never before had his human face felt so much like a mask.” Really? A fleeting encounter with a teen in a sewer eclipses all of the other times Angel’s had angst about the duality of his existence?

The best part about Avatar is the depiction of the main characters, especially some nice conversations between Doyle and Cordelia and Angel’s observations about Doyle’s chances for a romantic relationship with her. Many fans agree that the worst episode of Angel‘s first season is “She,” featuring Bai Ling as a violet-eyed, leather-clad leader in a flimsy story meant to serve as a metaphor for female circumcision. Angel’s supposedly attracted to her, but no one can figure out why because she’s so boring. Avatar is certainly not as good as the best episodes of season one, but it is definitely better than “She.”

Except for the part where Angel dances. That part is awesome.

The Summoned by Cameron Dokey: D

From the back cover:
Doyle is in the supermarket when the latest vision hits. Fear. Fire. Death. And an ornately engraved ancient amulet. As usual, the Powers That Be are none too specific. When he comes to, he is being tended by an anxious young woman named Terri Miller.

A shy girl from a small town, Terri is new to L.A., and feeling like a wallflower in the bright lights of this big city. Soon after her encounter with Doyle, who heads off without more than a perfunctory thank-you, a charismatic young man invites her to a meeting for a club to which he belongs.

Meanwhile, Angel and his gang have been turned on to a killer who burns his victims beyond recognition. Several of the deceased have connections to Terri’s newfound circle of friends, and Cordelia suddenly finds herself in possession of an amulet that looks awfully familiar…

Lest you think I read that description and went, “Ooh, that sounds totally awesome!”, I hasten to explain that the first five words were sufficient to induce me to check this book out from the library. I’ve read a few Angel tie-ins before, but they were all set later in the series, and consequently did not feature Doyle. And the supermarket part sounded potentially amusing. I fully expected the rest to be pretty crappy.

Alas, the supermarket turned out to be a disappointment. I wanted to see Doyle amidst the bright lights and cheesy muzak, searching grumblingly for some hard-to-find but specific item that Cordelia had sent him to fetch. Or maybe rejoicing on having scored a good deal on something random, like squash. But no, he was just on a Guinness run. Boring.

I heartily disliked Terri, who was one of those whiny “I’m so worthless” people I can’t stand. Here’s an example: she’d promised to pick something up at the store for a homeless guy, but forgot. Instead of going back in like a normal person, she was overcome by “a sense of failure greater than any she’d ever known.” She promptly joined a cult, despite having received a warning from one of its current members. When she later regretted the decision, I could summon no sympathy for her.

As predicted, the rest of the story was not good. The plot was lame and the characterization of Angel and Doyle often felt wrong. I had a hard time believing they’d say or think the things they were saying and thinking, particularly during a manufactured argument over whether Doyle was capable of charming the insipid Terri—his character further sullied by the fact that he actually liked her—in order to obtain information on the cult.

The author also had a weird habit of trying to justify things, like spending an entire page on why Doyle was using a pay phone instead of his cell to call Angel. Sometimes this resulted in puzzling lines like “Terri dropped her face into her hands. The fact that, even to her, her reaction felt obvious didn’t render it any the less potent.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but it seemed like the intent was to defend the clichéd writing.

Angel novels aren’t usually this lousy. I certainly hope there aren’t any out there worse than this one. For anyone considering giving them a try, I’d recommend Sanctuary as a good place to start.

Haunted by Jeff Mariotte: C-

From the back cover:
Cordelia’s getting her first big break—as a contestant on yet another twist on “reality programming.” The catch? She has to spend five days and four nights in a so-called haunted house. Not a problem for a girl who lives with a ghost and works with a vampire (and even managed to graduate from Sunnydale High School in one piece). She’s a shoo-in.

But there may be more going on behind the scenes than Cordy anticipated. On her first night, she’s wracked with a vision—and it’s of one of the applicants who didn’t make the final cut. Through subtle on-air clue-dropping, she manages to communicate the scenario to Angel and Co., who are instantly on the case. But as Angel, Wesley, and Gunn seek the missing actress, paranormal activity in the house heats up. Once Wolfram & Hart is added to the mix, Cordelia has to wonder which she would rather hold onto—her ticket to certain stardom… or her life…

Haunted takes place during the second season of Angel, some time after the episode “The Thin Dead Line.” Y’know, the one with the zombie cops. That’s actually episode 14, so towards the end of that season, after all the Darla angst.

This book is pretty freakin’ lame and boring. It features Cordelia, and so I mistakenly thought it might be fun, and now I’m bummed that I’d saved this one for last. It only cements my decision to lay off the Angel books for a while. The B plot mystery, regarding the applicant who didn’t make the cut who Cordelia has a vision about, is completely dumb. By page 113, it’s abundantly clear what is going on. Sustaining interest in it for 200 more pages is not possible. Trudge would be an apt description of my progress through these segments. How plots A and B ultimately intertwine is the epitome of flimsy.

So, in addition to a lackluster story, the editing is pretty horrid, too! There’s one scene in particular, where six contestants are left in the haunted house. The book names them. There are clearly six. Then the host says, “There are five of you…” And then he reads the results of the eviction vote and they total seven! No sneaky ghost has cast a vote, either, because no one reacts to the incorrect tally. In another scene, when only three contestants are left, Cordelia’s lounging on a couch while ‘several of the other contestants’ are hanging around, too. Eh? Two does not constitute several, and it would still be weird if they’d said ‘a couple of the other’ because these two have been referred to by name many times before and are again in the next paragraph. It’s like saying ‘Harry encountered a three-headed-dog and a couple of other students were there, too.’

The writing’s not as good as the others by Mariotte, either. Some thoughts and dialogue don’t seem entirely in character, nothing actually amusing happens… I could go more in depth, but enduring ’til the end has sapped my strength. I’m eager to put this one behind me.

Solitary Man by Jeff Mariotte: B

From the back cover:
Widow Mildred Finster is a life-long fan of “cozy” mystery novels. She decides at the tender age of seventy-one that she’d like to become a real private detective. She finds a card for Angel Investigations and thinks the name sounds very sweet. After all, she loves angels. What could be more perfect?

Angel and the gang are hip-deep in their own personal problems, so when Mildred offers her services, they don’t have much time for her. And when a truckload of antiquities from a local mission is stolen, they don’t get too worked up over what they think is a simple theft. But the arrival of some ruthless killers from overseas finally gets the gang’s attention.

Now they are being followed at every turn by a well-meaning old lady, fighting off attacks from poltergeists, and trying to set their personal differences aside to defeat a supernatural foe before a centuries-old mystery reaches its final chapter.

Yes, another Angel book! I checked out 4 at once, and now they’re all coming due, so I’m hastening to get them read. Solitary Man takes place early in season four, at least after episode six, “Spin the Bottle,” in which the team reverts to their high school personas and Cordelia regains her memories. I think there’s a timeline error, however. In that episode, Wesley’s got some spring-loaded blades up his sleeves, but in Solitary Man, he’s still waiting for them to be delivered. I don’t see why he’d need two sets of these things, so I am assuming they’re the same ones. It seems like an attempt of Mariotte’s to get in an esoteric reference to them in particular, but it doesn’t work with non-amnesiac-Cordelia.

In general, Mariotte writes the Angel crew well. I really liked his analysis about Wes and Lilah’s relationship. It’s never implicitly stated on the show, but I think that he got Wes’ motivations absolutely right. He also does well in showing what Fred and Gunn are each thinking after what happened with her former professor. This is a period in the show where people are keeping a lot to themselves, so it was neat to get some perspective on what they might’ve been thinking. Another thing he does well is describing the action in a scene so that it’s immediately easy to envision it playing out on screen. I find I really like being able to picture exactly how Angel got into the offices of the trucking company, for example.

My only complaint with the writing itself is that Mariotte seems to have a penchant for the lame simile. This also manifested itself in Sanctuary (review). The first example to catch my notice was this little gem: “…her footfall soft as the beat of a butterfly’s wing.” Another: “…with remnants of advertising posters clinging to them like bad memories that can’t be shaken.” I don’t know whether to snicker, groan, or make gagging sounds. Oh, and the spelling of magic with a K abounds. I definitely need to get my hands on some scripts and confirm that Whedon-tachi did not use this variant. I will be so depressed if they did. But Giles didn’t own the Magick Box, did he? No, he did not.

So, good characterization and dialogue aside, the plot of this one is kind of dull. Some artifacts didn’t make it to a mission renovation project, some weird old dude is involved, some comatose park ranger living in a house with a poltergeist is involved, some little old lady follows the crew and gives progress reports to her cat, Pookie. (I am not making this up.) The end was a little dumb, too. Mariotte provides another quick, easy read, enjoyable almost solely for the people populating it, and pretty bleh otherwise.

Sanctuary by Jeff Mariotte: B

From the back cover:
Angel and Co. are enjoying a rare moment of relaxation at the karaoke bar Caritas when a loud explosion draws the gang—and the rest of the bar’s patrons—outside. A building across the way is on fire, but the conflagration is nothing more than a diversionary tactic to distract people from a drive-by shooting! And when the smoke clears, Fred is missing.

It’s obvious she’s been kidnapped, so Angel, Lorne, Cordy, Wes, and Gunn set about questioning everyone within the immediate radius. At least ten demons were direct eyewitnesses. One problem, though: Each tells a different story of what he, she, or it saw. It could have been gang warfare—monster style—or Fred could have wandered home without saying good-bye. One thing quickly becomes clear: Demons don’t make for the most reliable sources…

Sanctuary takes place in season three, before the episode “This Old Gang of Mine,” in which Gunn’s former vampire-hunting buddies wreak some havoc in Caritas. At the time the story is set, Lorne has just finished renovating the club after it was damaged by the gang returning through the portal from Pylea in Angel’s car. Fred is still in her skittish, writing-on-walls stage and no romantic turmoil has disrupted the camaraderie of the group.

I had a little trouble getting into this one, initially. Not that it has any problems with timeline or canon; it was just a little dull. However, once I got more interested in the world-building going on via Lorne’s interviews with potential witnesses, the pace picked up. I liked that some attention was paid to what Lorne actually sees when he reads those who have sung for him. And it was pretty cool how Mariotte was able to reference the events of some early episodes as explanation for why some patrons of Caritas might have grudges against Angel. Like, remember some demon called Griff who menaced Doyle for unpaid gambling debts? Me, neither. But sure enough, he’s a real character in the Angel episode “Rm w/a Vu,” and his brother happened to be in Caritas the evening in question.

There were a couple of clunky lines of writing (example: “… caused the pain to come roaring back like a hungry lion released from its cage”) but not too many. The writing was in-character and often very amusing. There were lots of lines and scenes that I ccould totally imagine happening on the show, which is exactly what one wants from a novel of this sort. Like Angel wistfully remembering his evil days when confronted with an irritating convenience store clerk, and a whole lot of giggle-worthy moments between Cordelia, Gunn, and Wes, including a particular gag involving some demon goo on Wes’ hands.

All was going well until the last chapter or so, when a tremendously huge plot hole left me staring at the book and going, “Um…?” Despite this, I quite enjoyed the book and recommend it as a fun, light read. I’ve been pretty impressed by the two Angel novels I have read so far, and the local library has quite a few, so I will be reading more of them.

Book of the Dead by Ashley McConnell: B+

From the back cover:
Wes has been a compulsive reader since childhood. It’s an addiction like any other—he craves books, loves them, can’t live without them. So when his former colleague Adrian O’Flaherty comes to town and invites Wes along to a highly secret auction of rare occult books, Wes can’t say no.

What Wes doesn’t know is that Adrian is looking for more than dusty old tomes at the auction. He’s out for revenge. Before the Watchers Council was destroyed, a man named Rutherford Circe stole a number of rare books from the council’s libraries—and killed the librarian, Adrian’s father, in the process.

At the auction, Wes buys a box of old books that holds one of the most famous books of magic ever collected. The Red Compendium is known for totally absorbing its readers—and Wes, always a sucker for compelling literature, couldn’t put it down if he wanted to.

Note: One spelling of magic with a k was changed because it is lame.

I freely admit to being a Wes fangirl, and I couldn’t resist a book centered around him. This is my first original novel set in the Buffyverse, and I’m happy to report it’s far superior than the novelizations I’ve read previously. Characterization is very good for all characters, in inner thought as well as dialogue, and evoked no cringes whatsoever. I particularly liked Wes’ reminiscences back to his Watchers (Watchers’?) Academy days. I’m sure it’s like other English boarding schools, but to me it just seems Hogwartsian.

The plot is not the most stellar thing ever, but it’s pretty good. Some bits I could imagine in an episode, though not all of it. It takes place in the fourth season while Wes is still estranged from the others, but at the point where some reconciliation is slowly taking place. The timeline’s a little hard to pinpoint, though, because it’s definitely after Caleb blew up the Watchers Council, but seems to be before Angel turned into Angelus. And Lorne is still running Caritas, which I thought he’d given up by this point in time since Angel-tachi kept wrecking it.

One irksome thing is that the publisher can’t seem to decide which way it wants to spell the word magic. It uses the variant with a K on the back cover, which I dislike. At first, the text used the regular way, then it shifted to the K way, and then back again. I thought maybe it only used the K when it was black magic, but this theory was dashed. On page 118, both are used interchangeably: “death magick amulets” and, a few paragraphs later, “death magic amulets.” After the first appearance of magic with a K in the text, I started keeping a tally box. Here are the results:

Magick: 14
Magic: 12

Despite these little flaws, I still enjoyed the book, and would recommend it to anyone looking for some new stories featuring beloved characters.