A Barrage of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the second in a series of posts collecting relatively short reviews of these books. All of the following are set during the show’s third season.

Obsidian Fate by Diana G. Gallagher
obsidian_fateIn 1520, a Spaniard conveying stolen Aztec treasure to a secret hiding place was killed by a mudslide while holding a particular obsidian mirror. Now, his remains have been found in an archaeological dig in Sunnydale. It turns out that the mirror contains the essence of the Aztec god of night, Tezcatlipoca, who quickly makes a graduate student working on the dig his High Priestess and adopts a jaguar form to prowl around and do some chomps. The gang must prevent his brainwashed followers from offering enough human sacrifices to empower Tezcatlipoca to banish the sun forever.

There were definitely things I liked about Obsidian Fate. I liked that Buffy is worrying about her friends leaving for distant universities and colleges and trying to figure out what she herself is going to do. I liked that Angel has begun to think about moving away to let Buffy live her life. I liked that Giles is still grieving Jenny. A lot of the characterization and dialogue was good—especially Oz, which is pretty difficult to do. Surprisingly, Kendra and Faith both get a mention, though the latter is nowhere to be seen (and this is all set before she goes bad). No Wesley at all. It’s also really neat that the Mayor and Mr. Trick are facilitating Tezcatlipoca’s rise!

But oh man, so many descriptions of temples and stones and boulders and pillars. It’s very tedious. Also, one of their fellow students has become temporary host to part of Tezcatlipoca’s essence and plans to sexually assault Willow prior to sacrificing her. Nobody, besides Oz, seems to be quite as pissed off about this as they should be. Lastly, a subplot about how one of Buffy’s prophetic dreams showed Angel’s demise offers zero suspense. Still, their reunion on the final page does produce a genuinely cute moment.

Is this one worth a read? Eh, it could be worse.

Power of Persuasion by Elizabeth Massie
power_persuasionThis was a bit of a clunker, I’m afraid. The awkward teen daughter of a culinarily disinclined restaurant owner grows fed up with catering to her incompetent father’s whims and, by chanting supplications whilst surrounded by random items from the restaurant’s pantry, somehow successfully summons a Greek goddess and her two muse daughters to help her change things. They proceed to compel a lot of female students (including Willow) to join their “womyn power” crusade, which mostly involves campaigning for girls to have the right to try out for the vacancies on boys’ teams that arise when male athletes keep turning up dead.

Many of these Buffy media tie-in novels have similarly mediocre plots, but are usually made more tolerable by the author having the ability to capture how characters speak and interact. Not so much here, unfortunately. I appreciated that with Willow, Giles, and Xander falling under the sway of the villains and Angel out of town, Buffy had to rely on Cordelia and Oz to help her. But, while Cordelia’s scenes were fine, much of Oz’s dialogue and demeanor seemed wrong to me. Also, some weird abilities are ascribed to vampires, like one scene where a struggling vamp leaves scorch marks where her heels have dug into the earth.

I suppose the best praise I can muster is, “It’s pretty lame, but at least it’s short.”

Prime Evil by Diana G. Gallagher
prime_evilSeldom have I read a book so starkly divided between enjoyable parts and excruciating parts!

Set after “Doppelgangland,” the plot of Prime Evil involves a witch attuned to “primal magick” who was first born 19,000 years ago and who keeps being reincarnated and gathering sacrificial followers in an attempt to access “the source.” Her current identity is Crystal Gordon, a new history teacher at Sunnydale High, and her latest crop of doomed devotees is composed entirely of students. Obviously, it’s the Scooby Gang’s job to stop her.

First, the good. Most of the scenes with the main characters are fun, with dialogue that I could easily hear in the actors’ voices. Anya and Joyce have significant roles, and there was notable awkwardness between the latter and Giles. Although this was presumably the result of their dalliance in “Band Candy,” I liked that the explanation wasn’t explicitly stated. I thought it was interesting that Crystal tempts Willow to join her disciples by promising a cure for Oz, and I did have to snicker at a scene in which Angel, for the sake of expedience in getting to safety, has to sling Xander over his shoulder.

The bad, however, cannot be denied. There are many tedious flashbacks to Crystal’s past incarnations and these quickly became literally groan-inducing. In addition, the theoretically climactic magical battle at the end is full of prose like “The great source-river of wild magick coursed in violent abandon through the orbits of comets so ancient and distant they had never been warmed by the sun” and succeeded only in making me profoundly sleepy.

In summation… zzz.

Resurrecting Ravana by Ray Garton
resurrecting_ravanaA rash of cattle mutilations has the Scooby Gang suspecting hellhound activity, but when several people turn up eaten, after each has spontaneously killed their dearest friend, it’s clear something else is up. There’s more of a mystery here than these books generally offer, with a plot that features Hindu gods, an elderly collector of magical artifacts, his lonely granddaughter, and a certain statue that can resurrect a deity who will reward one richly for this service (and whose minions will kill everyone else).

Along the way, a new guidance counselor of Indian descent is introduced (replacing the guy who got killed in “Beauty and the Beasts”). At first, I thought this was going to be another one of those “Willow falls under the sway of a new female staff/faculty member who is secretly evil” storylines, but, refreshingly, that did not turn out to be the case. Willow just talks to her about problems with her relationship with Buffy, which come to a head in a couple of full-on brawls in the library. It takes a really long time for anyone to put together that their situation parallels the murders/devourings happening elsewhere in town, but it does lead to a nice final moment for the book.

Characterization is spotty. Pretty much each character has a moment that feels especially right as well as one that feels especially wrong. Xander and Cordelia’s bickering is even nastier than usual, and it’s never outright said that they’re being affected by the same creatures who manipulated Buffy and Willow. That said, I did enjoy all of Buffy’s interactions with her mother, particularly a late-night trip to Denny’s. All in all, Resurrecting Ravana wasn’t bad!

Return to Chaos by Craig Shaw Gardner
return_chaosReturn to Chaos is a bit different from most of the other Buffy tie-in books I’ve read. Instead of a new big villain coming to town, the plot is mostly about some new allies coming to town. A quartet of Druids, specifically, consisting of an older guy named George and his three nephews, one of whom develops feelings for Buffy. George wants to enlists the Slayer’s help in performing a spell on the Hellmouth that will supposedly prevent bad things from crossing over, but he’s really vague about his plans, and it soon becomes evident that he isn’t in his right mind. The nephews genuinely are allies, though, which is kind of refreshing.

This book was written in 1998, and it seems that the author was not privy to much that was going to happen in season three. A couple of vague references are made to Angel coming back, and about Buffy trying to move on romantically, but Xander and Cordelia are still very much together as a couple. That would put this somewhere between “Beauty and the Beasts” (episode four) and “Lover’s Walk” (episode eight), except that it is very clearly spring and we know that “Amends” (episode ten) is Christmas. Oopsies. There are a couple of other small errors, too, concerning Buffy’s eye color and Giles’ glasses.

This is another book in which there’s more of Oz than I’d been expecting. Some of his scenes and thoughts are okay, and I appreciated that the author wrote a teensy bit about Oz’s family, but at other times he just seems far too verbose. (This, combined with the errors mentioned above, makes me wonder just how familiar the author was with these characters.) Cordelia has a subplot of her own, as well, in which she falls under the thrall of a former rival turned vampire. The Druids recognize that the vampire is using a “mastery” spell, which is likened to the power Drusilla exhibited when she was able to kill Kendra so easily. I thought that was kind of neat.

In the end, despite some flaws, it turned out to be pretty decent.

Revenant by Mel Odom
revenantIn 1853, 35 Chinese laborers were killed in a mine cave-in on a site owned by some of Sunnydale’s forefathers. The incident was covered up and families were unable to provide their loved ones with a proper burial. Now, the unquiet spirits of those men want vengeance on the owners’ descendants and have managed to communicate with the troubled brother of one of Willow’s friends, who enlists her help. Honestly, this plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there’s a rich importer involved (who’s receiving help from the mayor) and chanting and statues and dragons and warehouses what go boom and demons that turn into goop.

Sometimes, Odom has a bit of trouble with characterization—Oz’s dialogue often doesn’t feel quite right, and sometimes Buffy comes off as vapid, like an early scene where she’s worried about her hair while Willow is running for her life—but other scenes are spot-on. I particularly liked a moment where Giles is forced to hotwire a truck (“I was not always a good boy”) and the final scene wherein Xander attempts to parlay his latest romantic disappointment into Buffy’s half of a Twinkie they’re sharing. Odom also incorporates and elaborates on some of the issues characters are worrying about at this point in the show: Buffy ponders her future with Angel, Xander dreads being left behind after graduation, and Cordelia seeks to avoid trouble at home by helping with research. The action scenes are easy to envision, as well.

Unlike most other books set during this season, the brief Xander/Willow fling and its fallout are acknowledged. Like the others, neither Faith nor Wesley is mentioned, and the former’s absence is particularly glaring, given the evident difficulty of the big battle. Still, Revenant ended up being a pleasant surprise.

A Bevy of Buffy

Because I am a great big geek, one of my personal goals is to read all of the novels inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is the first in what will be a series of posts collecting reviews of these books in a somewhat shorter-than-usual format. In this installment: Afterimage, Bad Bargain, Blooded, Carnival of Souls, One Thing or Your Mother, and Portal Through Time. All are set during the show’s second season.

Afterimage by Pierce Askegren
I’m pretty sure Afterimage is set between “What’s My Line” and “Ted”—the former is a definite, despite the season being referred to as early autumn even though “What’s My Line” takes place after Halloween, but the latter is a guess based on a couple of thoughts Joyce has about needing to get out more, which the author (writing in 2006) might’ve intended as a lead-in to “Ted.”

The book gets off to a slow start and, in fact, not much seems to happen for the first sixty pages. Our heroes encounter some strange folks about town, and it’s pretty obvious to the reader that “Hey, these are characters from the movies being shown at the new drive-in!” but it takes quite a while for the characters to catch up. That said, around page 100 things begin to improve, which is right about where Jonathan appears. I knew he was in this, and was hoping for more of an active role. Sadly, all he does is go to the movies with Xander and then get afflicted by a mysterious sleeping sickness, along with 29 other Sunnydale residents.

Speaking of the drive-in, it occurred to me that this is totally a Sailor Moon plot. Creepy yet charismatic bad guy comes into town and advertises a free drive-in. The local residents swarm the place and then creepy guy feeds on their energy. Our heroine destroys the evil projector with her tiara machete, and the bad guy dissolves. He does not, alas, proclaim “Refresh!”

Still, this was a pretty enjoyable outing, and had some nice touches, like a glimpse at Xander’s bickering parents, a spot-on depiction of petulant Harmony, and Cordelia demonstrating her intelligence and leadership skills. In fact, while Buffy is important, I think Xander comes across more like the protagonist of this one, which is a nice change.

Bad Bargain by Diana G. Gallagher
Bad Bargain is set in season two (between “What’s My Line?” and “Ted” would be my guess) but written in 2006, three years after the end of the series, which allows author Diana G. Gallagher to use her knowledge of later events to color what would otherwise be a fairly dull tale of demonic critters infesting a rummage sale.

In another of her attempts to recapture a normal teen life, Buffy is volunteering at the school rummage sale to benefit the marching band. She’s roped Willow and Xander into participating, too, and this scintillating event has even come to the attention of Spike and Dru, who head to Sunnydale High for a spot of shoplifting. All goes awry when a spell to locate one kid’s missing amulet ends up inviting a host of microscopic Hellmouth beasties, who proceed to infect most of those present. The day is ultimately, of course, saved, though Willow theoretically suffers trauma from being parted from the cute-looking critter who beguiled her into becoming its protector. That part is kind of dumb (and I didn’t think Gallagher captured Drusilla’s mode of speech well, either).

What’s interesting, though, is that Andrew is in this. In fact, he and Jonathan have fairly prominent roles, which I thought was quite fun. In a nice bit of dramatic irony, Jonathan has become possessed by some demonic whip thing and subsequently angsts when he realizes that he nearly killed his best friend. In addition, Gallagher includes a few comments that suggest that these events spurred actions by the characters as seen in the show. For example, Oz muses about painting his van and, after the pests have been sent back where they belong, Princpal Snyder remarks, “Next year’s fund-raiser for the marching band will be something simple, like selling candy.” Hee!

Blooded by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder
It’s difficult to pinpoint the timeline for this one. Angel’s stint as Angelus is mentioned, as is the death of Jenny Calendar, but he was apparently able to regain his soul in a way that did not involve Willow. (This book was published in August 1998, and I have to wonder if Whedon wasn’t willing to give away the plot details for the season two finale, so Golden and Holder had to be super vague about it.) I do think this is the end of season two—despite what Wikipedia claims—because Oz and Willow’s relationship is still new, her hair is still long, etc.

Anyway, the gang goes to a museum for a field trip and Willow ends up freeing and being possessed by the spirit of an ancient Chinese vampire-sorcerer. She gathers minions, attacks Xander, and causes her friends to fret. Eventually, Xander gets possessed by a Japanese mountain god and there’s a big battle and spells and Giles wears a headband with a kanji on it. In the end the day is saved through teamwork (yes, really).

On the whole, this book is pretty boring. However, there are a few things to recommend it. For every two or three bits of clunky dialogue, there is occasionally one that is at least slightly amusing or which I can easily hear in the actor’s voice. It was also prescient about a few things. Cordelia’s lack of skill as an actress is mentioned, which will come into play on Angel, and she makes the comment, “I’ll never admit it if you tell her I said it, but I’d hate to think about what Sunnydale would be like if we didn’t have a Slayer in town.” This is interesting, because she is the one who allows us to see exactly that in season three’s “The Wish.” There’s also some good stuff here with Willow’s desire for power and strength, and how that made her vulnerable to the vampire-sorcerer dude. Most of the resulting darkness is played as his fault, but it dovetails nicely with her eventual character arc on the show.

In the end, there are far better Buffy tie-in books, but this wasn’t too bad.

Carnival of Souls by Nancy Holder
Carnival of Souls turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting. Wedged snugly between “Ted” and “Surprise,” the story is set around the episode “Bad Eggs,” which is a great place to put it because, hey, if the book’s at least moderately good, it’ll still be on par with that notoriously rather lame episode.

The premise is that a carnival has come to town, and its proprietor is some kind of devil demon thing that uses prisms to hypnotize visitors into giving in to the temptation of the seven deadly sins so that it might feed off of their souls. Our heroes are not immune, so Buffy becomes proud, Cordelia greedy, Xander gluttonous, Willow envious, Giles angry, Angel lustful, and Joyce slothful.

Really, the specifics of the carnival itself are not very interesting. What I most liked were the many scenes of the group all together, doing their investigation thing, and how good a lot of the dialogue was. Some of Xander’s lines are especially easy to hear in the actor’s voice, and I actually laughed at one of Buffy’s mid-slaying puns. Plus, I liked that they gave Jenny Calendar something significant to contribute.

All in all, I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if not for the matter of the kittens.

Early on, Giles acquires a pair of kittens with the intent to use them as payment to Clem in exchange for information, fully cognizant they’ll be used as currency in a demonic poker game. And as if that weren’t bad enough, when Angry!Giles summons a demon that destroys his apartment, no one asks what happened to the kitties, including Buffy and Willow, who were loving on them in a previous scene! Still worse, if you interpret the text in a certain way, you might conclude that Giles sacrificed them as part of the ritual. Ugh! Why?! It was absolutely not necessary to include them and taint this otherwise decent book.

One Thing or Your Mother by Kirsten Beyer
One Thing or Your Mother is the best Buffy tie-in novel that I have ever read. Well done, Kirsten Beyer! I’m sorry that, as this is also the last Buffy tie-in novel to be published, you never got to write another one.

Set between “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “Go Fish,” One Thing or Your Mother finds Buffy contending with several different problems. Aside from the recurring menace of Angelus, there’s the fact that Joyce has been contacted by the school about her daughter’s poor grades (with the end result that Buffy acquires a tutor), the disappearance of a young girl followed by sightings of a child vampire, and the strange behavior exhibited by Principal Snyder that ultimately imperils the whole town. True, none of these elements is particularly exciting, but each is competently executed, and done in a way that has bearing on what’s going to happen next in the series.

Where Beyer really shines is in capturing the characters—not just in dialogue, at which she admittedly excels, but in thought as well. Too many times to count, the thoughts attributed to Buffy and the others in these books have been downright insipid, but not this time. In addition, the scenes with the Scooby Gang together in the library are so spot-on they’re just about episode quality. Granted, this doesn’t match up to the very best of Buffy—a lot of which can be found in season two—but with a little reworking and simplifying, this could’ve made a solid episode better than the worst of Buffy—some of which can also be found in season two. I also thought Beyer did a great job with Spike.

Perhaps once I’ve completed this project I’ll have to come up with the Top Ten Buffy Novels for those who only want to read the cream of the crop. One Thing or Your Mother has definitely secured itself a spot on that list.

Portal Through Time by Alice Henderson
Set between “Bad Eggs” and “Surprise,” Alice Henderson’s Portal Through Time evidently takes place very early in 1998, because Buffy is still sixteen (she turns seventeen on January 19th) and Angel has not yet lost his soul. A vampire called Lucien has done a lot of research into time-traveling magic and recruits some assistants to help him with his plan: go back in time and kill four very famous Slayers so as to disrupt the line and allow the Master (of whom he is a devotee) to rise unimpeded. Angel gets wind of the plan, so Buffy and pals end up traveling to Wales in 60 C.E., to Sumeria in the time of Gilgamesh, to Tennessee during the Battle of Shiloh, and to Paris during the French Revolution.

Sometimes being a reviewer (or at least being one who sets geeky goals) means reading things so that others don’t have to. Such is the case with Portal Through Time. Although there are some things Henderson does well—I like her attempts to recapture the feel of the show by employing quick cuts between scenes to humorous effect, for example—the overall concept of a magical means to travel back in time is just not very well thought out.

For one, if such magic did exist, you can bet that Willow would’ve used it to wipe out Warren before he could do harm to anyone she cared about. And two, even within this book there are complications and possibilities that are not pursued. Near the end, for example, Buffy stakes Angelus and then reuses the incantation to go back in time to the same spot and keep that from happening. So why does everyone seem so secure that once they’ve thwarted the vamps in a given time period the Slayer is now safe? The vamps could just go back and try again!

On top of this, Henderson’s writing is frequently redundant, like when she reiterates several times that if the vampires arrive at their destination during the day they will have to wait until nightfall to take action, and sometimes just plain bad. During an interminable passage in which Buffy is creeping through the woods around the perimeter of Shiloh, she ends up getting shot in the leg and suddenly develops a fondness for deer. Behold:

She forced herself to focus on the grand trees and shadowed valleys, golden fields in which the deer gathered at dusk… She imagined the fields and groves of trees without the thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers, but instead full of foraging deer and black bear.

I should not be snickering when there are thousands of bleeding and broken soldiers in a scene. And maybe you see nothing wrong with that quote, but to me it sounds nothing like Buffy and is just the author clumsily inserting an anti-war message.

Sometimes it can be fun to read a lousy book, but in the end this one is just too long and boring for me to recommend doing even that.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 8

By Joss Whedon, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

Because I’ve spent so much time and energy in the attempt to quantify why and how Season Eight lost me, I find myself sorely tempted to dismiss this final volume with a simple “meh,” but I suppose I can summon one more burst of effort.

This volume comprises the last five issues of Season Eight (#36-40) and also includes a fun Riley one-shot by Jane Espenson called “Commitment through Distance, Virtue through Sin.” When last we left off, Buffy had turned down sex-spawned paradise to return to this dimension and help her friends fend off the demons that poured in once her mystical boinkage with Angel created a new universe. Then Spike showed up.

As usual, the arc actually starts off pretty well. We see how Angel was convinced (by a talking dog who gets some great lines of Whedon dialogue) to take up the Twilight cause, and some of how Spike became involved. (Please note at this point that Spike has just apparently read Buffy’s name in the newspaper, where she is labeled a terrorist. This will be relevant in a moment.) Now with Buffy and the others, Spike says that “the seed of wonder,” the source of all magic in the world, can stop all of this. And it just so happens to be in the Sunnydale Hellmouth, guarded by the revived Master.

So everyone goes there or maybe they were there already. I have honestly lost track. Anyway, Twilight is very displeased that its parents have abandoned it, and while Buffy and friends are ostensibly protecting the Seed, Twilight possesses Angel and makes him attack Buffy. Long story short: Giles attempts to kill Angel with the scythe, but it’s absolutely hopeless and Angel breaks his neck (just like Jenny Calendar). Buffy, mad with grief, has just had enough and she breaks the seed, severing the connection between this world and magic. Willow, who had possibly been making some headway against the attackers, is promptly stripped of her powers. Though I often criticize Georges Jeanty’s art, Willow’s expression at this moment is some of his best work.

Issue #40 picks up four months later and largely serves to set up Season Nine. Buffy is crashing on the couch at Dawn and Xander’s San Francisco apartment, working in a coffee shop and routinely dealing with confrontations with Slayers and Wiccans who feel that she betrayed them. Dawn has gone back to school and Xander has once again found gainful employment in construction. Giles left everything to Faith in his will (ouch!), including a London flat. She is also apparently the only one willing to care for a catatonic Angel, which I think is pretty awesome. Given their affinity, it makes perfect sense that she’s the one willing to forgive him when no one else can so much as even look at him.

So. Here are the things I disliked about all of this:

1. I swear sometimes that Whedon is actively trying to get me to hate Buffy. In issue #31, she confesses her love for Xander. In issue #34, she boffs Angel. In issue #36, she is still glowy about that, despite the havoc that ensued. “You gave me perfection and you gave it up. That’s not just the love of my life. That’s the guy I would live it with.” Um, did you forget the 206 girls he killed to get to that point? I can buy Faith’s actions so much more easily than Buffy’s because though she forgives him, it’s not like she’s forgotten all that he’s done.

As if this weren’t bad enough, in issue #37 Buffy is talking with Spike and begins daydreaming about making out with him. A throwaway comment suggests that perhaps this is a remnant of Twilight mind control, and I hope that’s true. I’m not suggesting that Buffy is usually virtuous or that she doesn’t make some impulsive choices when lonely, but holy crap. What a horndog!

2. Remember that newspaper that mentioned “terrorist Buffy Summers”? Well, how is Buffy able to resume life in San Francisco under her own name? In a recent Q&A, Scott Allie says “Buffy didn’t become a household name,” but issue #36 sure seems to indicate otherwise.

3. So far, I feel nothing about Giles’ death. It just doesn’t feel real. There wasn’t enough impact or something. Hearing his will helped it sink in more (and he gets a middle name: Edmund), but, odd as it sounds, I want to be sobbing over this, and I am not.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good things in this volume. Looks like there’s 3 of those, too.

1. There are some great scenes between pairs of characters. Giles and Buffy have a nice scene and Giles and Xander do, as well. Probably my favorite scenes involve Spike and Buffy, though, because he is pretty frank concerning how disgusting he finds everything.

Spike: Under all that demon viscera, you still reek of him, and that’s not a treat for me—but it can’t be Buffy if she doesn’t bonk the bad guy, right?

Buffy: Snark!

Spike: Comes with the sizable package.

As mentioned, Willow’s grief is pretty amazing, and Kennedy haters will rejoice to learn that Willow soon breaks up with her. Less awesome is the throwaway reveal that Willow possibly loved her sexy snaky mentor, whom she will now never see again thanks to Buffy.

2. The fulfillment of the “betrayal” issue. Back in issue #10, Buffy and Willow went to visit a… seer or something, who shows Buffy a glimpse of herself (a pose that is finally realized in issue #39 after the seed has been destroyed) and says that it’s due to “Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected.”

At first, I was kind of annoyed that the traitor was not conclusively identified, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is quintessential Whedon. Buffy betrayed everyone by boinking the enemy, bringing down demon hordes, and then ridding the world of magic. Buffy and Angel betrayed the new universe they created. Angel betrayed Buffy by killing Giles… Ultimately, I think the prophecy refers to Buffy herself, but it’s kind of neat that it can be interpreted in several different ways.

3. One might not expect a one-shot prequel starring Riley and his wife Sam to be kind of awesome, but this one is. It’s full of great dialogue (and when I mentioned my favorite line to Jane Espenson on Twitter she actually replied!) and reminds us once again why Sam is so fantastic. I think I now want a mini-series focusing on these two as they are occasionally summoned away from bucolic corn-growing bliss to save the world.

So now the big question is… will I read Season Nine?

While there were some things I disliked about earlier arcs in Season Eight, Brad Meltzer’s penultimate “Twilight” arc was the proverbial straw that broke the fangirl’s back, and I resolved to stay away from further Buffy comics once this particular season had wrapped up. Advance press for Season Nine, however, has made me change my mind.

Season Nine just sounds so much more like something I’d want to read (and will be co-written by Andrew Chambliss, who penned my favorite Dollhouse episode, “A Spy in the House of Love”). For example, the synopsis for the second issue begins “Buffy continues her nightly patrols while trying to cobble together a sensible life…” That sounds great to me! Much better than all this big-budget sprawl. And the Angel and Faith companion series sounds like it could be even better!

I may end up disappointed, but I just don’t think I’ll be able to resist.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 7

By Brad Meltzer, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

When I write a review, I do my best to articulate what I liked and didn’t like as clearly as possible. When one is a passionate fan of something, however—as I undoubtedly and unabashedly am of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—such clarity becomes more difficult to achieve. I will do my best to explain my aversion to the “Twilight” arc contained in this volume, but what it really boils down to is that I just don’t like it.

Spoilers abound. Beware.

The volume actually starts off pretty well, with a Joss-penned one-shot called “Turbulence” (issue #31) that finally gets rid of those irksome colorful goddesses for good and contains an amazing scene between Buffy and Xander wherein she reacts to seeing him kissing Dawn by confessing that she has begun to see him in a romantic light. He is appropriately incredulous:

Xander: Yoooou… have feelings. At me.
Buffy: Would that be good?
Xander: That would be great. If it was a bunch of years ago and you actually meant it.

He also points out that, even if her feelings were genuine, once she saw him and Dawn together she should’ve realized that the decent thing to do would be to keep quiet. Honestly, I’m a little bothered by how immature and selfish Buffy is here, but her desperate loneliness coupled by Xander’s rejection might play a part in her actions a few issues later. Xander, on the other hand, comes off as entirely in character; I think he is probably the best thing about the Season Eight comics, actually.

Really, the first 2.5 issues of the “Twilight” arc are pretty good, too. Buffy and Xander explore the extent of her newfound superpowers. Dawn is concerned, pointing out that “you don’t get power for free,” and she is proven correct when Willow’s search for the missing Faith, Giles, and Andrew leads to the discovery of a bunch of dead Slayers. It turns out that 206 Slayers have died since the start of the conflict, and Buffy has inherited all of their powers. She’s understandably pretty freaked out by this. “If I’m sucking their power… it makes me a vampire.”

Meanwhile, the missing trio are being held at Twilight headquarters, where Giles recognizes the enemy’s voice and many hints are dropped concerning what’s going on and Giles’s knowledge of it. “Every Watcher wonders if his Slayer might be the girl… and you’ve had more reason than any.”

The high point of the arc is when Buffy interrupts this conversation to attack Twilight, at which points he unmasks himself. Angel. Buffy’s anger is initially white-hot. “You killed my girls! Two hundred and six girls!” and “Why did you put us through this fucking hell for the past year?!” Angel rationalizes his actions as a way to keep the body count lower than if governments had gotten involved. If he posed as the masked villain and talked of “master plans,” he would distract others who might’ve wanted to take action. Simultaneously, he would focus Buffy and help her superpowers develop.

And here’s where things start to break down for me. What it boils down to is this: by activating all the Potentials, Buffy upset the balance of the Universe. But also, there’s this prophecy (referred to as merely a myth by Giles when he’s accused of not sharing his awareness of the possibility) that a Slayer and Vampire will be used to usher in a new reality of superbeings. Or something. It’s all very vague. When this new reality is established, the old one (and humanity with it) will be discarded. This is what the whole season has been building toward, and it’s just such a disappointment. Ugh.

What I really hate about this idea is that it basically retcons Buffy’s personal attraction to vampires and makes it something that the Universe’s grand plan was engineering. How much of what is happening is free will, and how much is the Universe controlling their actions? Does Angel really believe all this stuff? Or is he essentially possessed? Did Buffy really want to jump his bones so desperately (which she does, in fact, proceed to do) because she’s in a lonely and vulnerable place, or did the Universe make it easy for her to put aside her fury and make with the sexy times?

I also hate how their sexual encounter is treated, with a peanut gallery making jokes about it and many silly panels where they zoom across the sky, bodies entwined, while the world erupts in seaquakes and cyclones. It just looks stupid, but more than that, I think it was done to shock the reader. Is this juxtaposition (NSFW) of imagery and text coincidence? I think not, especially after the whole Buffy/Satsu thing.

The final issue of the arc offers some redemption, with Buffy gradually regaining her focus after sexual bliss and being dissatisfied with the pleasure paradise to which she and Angel have ascended. He is ready to believe in it (and, again, is this really his personal opinion?) and dwell there together forever but she doesn’t trust it and, more than that, can’t be happy in a nirvana while her friends are fighting for their lives. Her exact words are “Fuck evolution,” and, after a brief sad smile to acknowledge what might have been, she and Angel return to help her family fight off the hordes of demons who have invaded “the lower plane.” Willow is suitably pissed at Angel—“What you got coming you better hope never comes”—and then Spike arrives, seemingly with the intent of knocking a bunch of sense into everyone. Yay, Spike!

So, anyway, I just don’t like this arc. I don’t think it was thought through very well, and I don’t like the implications it retroactively conveys upon the events of the series. While I’m airing grievances, I shall also point out that Meltzer gets a basic fact wrong—Faith did not become a Slayer upon Buffy’s death—that no one on the editorial staff was knowledgable (or attentive) enough to spot. Too, Georges Jeanty’s renderings of Faith continue to be extremely ugly. The only way to enjoy her scenes is to just try really hard to imagine Eliza Dushku in her place.

The volume is rounded out by “Willow: Goddesses and Monsters,” another Joss-penned one-shot set before the beginning of Season Eight. In it, Willow takes some sort of magical journey that she originally skipped over in her accelerated path to power. There’s really not a lot going on here, and a lot of the dialogue is supposed to be funny but isn’t, but it’s noteworthy because it’s the first time we’ve glimpsed Tara in the comics.

One more volume to go, and it includes Spike! I never did read the final two issues, so though I am spoiled on one pivotal event, much of it will be new to me. I hope I don’t hate it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 6 by Jane Espenson: B-

From the back cover:
Twilight and his gainfully employed military units are hot on Buffy’s magical trail—forcing her and Slayers across the globe into hiding. Buffy retreats into the Tibetan mountains to seek aid from the only person she knows who can suppress his true nature—Oz. Since Oz left Sunnydale he’s gained control over the magic that transforms him with the phases of the moon from man to werewolf. If Buffy, Willow, and the legion of Slayers give up their magic, Twilight might lose their scent, granting them a moment of peace, quiet, and tranquility.

Before I reread the “Retreat” arc, my memories of it went like this: Buffy and friends go see Oz in Tibet; some huge, brightly colored goddesses are involved; and Buffy discovers that she can fly. Weary of unnecessary cameos—although I genuinely do love Oz—and wary of Buffy’s new ability, I didn’t like this much the first time around.

Though it improves upon a second read, it straddles that line between “what I will agree to consider as canon” and “just somebody’s convoluted fanfic.” Obviously, I know that I am just one opinionated fan among many, but what I’m getting at is that some stuff happens that I genuinely like, and some stuff happens that I’m not crazy about.

After their castle in Scotland was destroyed by a magical bomb, courtesy of Twilight’s minions, Amy and Skinless Warren, the Slayers have been looking for new digs. Public opinion is against them, thanks to Harmony’s current popularity, so they find a secluded sort of bunker, shielded by a woodsy magical illusion. Alas, Twilight hones in on this magic and attacks again, causing them to teleport to the one person they know who has successfully divested himself of magic: Oz.

It’s good to see Oz again, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be happier about it if his return hadn’t come after lesser characters like Ethan Rayne and Dracula. He’s settled down with a “mate” and has a child, and one of the saddest things about this arc is how Buffy descends upon his peaceful life, bringing war and death along with her once Twilight tracks them down yet again.

But before that happens, there’s a peaceful lull during which the Slayers and Willow participate in various chants and physical chores designed to direct their magical powers into the Earth. This allows plenty of time for character-building moments and amusing dialogue, my favorite being the interaction between Giles and the baby. Like so:

Baby: Ga!
Giles: Yes, hello, baby.


Baby: (steals Giles’ glasses) Gaha!
Giles: Oh dear.

On a more serious note, Buffy finally tells her friends about her encounter with Dark Willow in the future, which prompts some interesting reactions. Willow confidently swears it couldn’t possibly have been her, but meanwhile, Giles and Andrew are suspicious—especially given Willow’s dark methods of obtaining intel—and begin watching her. Also, just as Buffy begins to ponder wanting to connect with someone, and begins to think Xander might just fit the bill, he and Dawn finally get around to smooching. I might be in the minority here, but I like this pairing, especially since they’ve been shown to have developed a very solid friendship. Given her track record, it’s hard to say whether Buffy’s feelings are genuine or if she’s just lonely.

And speaking of Buffy and decision-making, it’s her choices that have ultimately led to a terrible massacre. True, there were no good alternatives, but she’s entirely responsible for bringing ruin to Oz’s tranquil existence, first by making his home a target for Twilight and his minions, then turning its environs into a battlefield, and finally by summoning some local goddesses—those to whom all that poured-into-the-earth magic was actually going—who kill indiscriminately. As with the Xander situation, this is not out of character for Buffy at all—part of why she’s lovable is that, even though she’s special, hers is an extremely tough role that nobody would envy—but it’s pretty depressing all the same.

I also have trouble believing that anyone thought getting rid of magical defenses—which includes the Slayers’ strength—would be a good idea when they are the target of a massive military operation. I suppose there was the chance that it would keep them hidden, but it doesn’t seem like they bothered to fully investigate the ramifications. A scene in which automatic weapons and grenades are passed out is just really weird, given Whedon’s stance on guns throughout the series.

Although I have issues with it, this arc is ultimately better than I remembered. Most of the fallout from Xander and Dawn and Buffy’s superpowers will come in the next volume, which is a plus, but there will be much crack, as well.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 5 by Jane Espenson, et al.: C+

From the back cover:
When Buffy’s former classmate-turned-vampire Harmony Kendall lands her own reality TV show, vampires are bolstered into the mainstream. Humans fall in line; they want a piece of the glitz, glam, and eternal youth bestowed upon these mysterious creatures of the night. What’s a Slayer to do when vampires are the trendiest thing in the world? While humans donate their blood to the vampire cause, Slayers—through a series of missteps, misfortunes, and anti-Slayer propaganda driven by the mysterious Twilight—are forced into hiding.

The fifth collected volume of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight comics is comprised of five one-shots, four of which are written by writers from the show. You might think that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t always turn out to be the case.

Issue 21, “Harmonic Divergence,” is written by Jane Espenson. Captured on film one evening while snacking on Andy Dick, Harmony becomes an instant celebrity. A reality show—with Clem for a sidekick!—on MTV follows. The show portrays Harmony sympathetically, as someone who drinks from humans but doesn’t do them any harm, and when a Slayer decides to take Harmony out on-camera, it spawns a tide of anti-Slayer sentiment.

It’s true, vampires are a big craze at the moment, but I find this whole plotline—it continues for some time—to be kind of stupid. What’s worse is that George Jeanty seriously can’t draw Mercedes McNab (the actress who portrays Harmony) to save his life. He does no better with original characters, either. At one point the nameless Slayer looks like a middle-aged man in drag.

Issue 22, “Swell,” is not much better. Written by Steven S. DeKnight, it takes place in Tokyo, where Kennedy has arrived to conduct an evaluation of newly promoted Satsu. Meanwhile, Twilight, the big bad of the season, has taken over the San(to)rio Corporation and disguised a bunch of demons as “Vampy Cat” plushies with plans to ship them to Scotland, where Buffy is. Probably this is supposed to be funny, but again, it’s just kind of stupid. Kennedy does offer Satsu some advice about pining for a straight girl, though, and the issue ends with Satsu resolved to move on.

The best story of the lot is “Predators and Prey,” by Drew Z. Greenberg. Taking advantage of the current attitude towards Slayers, rogue Slayer Simone and her gang have ousted the residents of an Italian village and taken over. Feeling responsible as Simone’s former Watcher, Andrew has taken an “ends justify the means” approach to getting intel on her whereabouts, resulting in not only an amusing roadtrip with Buffy, but a lot of growth for his character. Having never earned anyone’s trust before, he’s terrified of losing it, which makes him screw up for the right reasons. Buffy tells him to get used to it, because that’s her family’s specialty. Not only does this issue have some funny lines, it’s actually quite significant for Andrew. Gold star for Greenberg!

The one story penned by someone who never wrote for the show is “Safe,” by Jim Krueger. It stars Faith and Giles, which it earns points for immediately, as they investigate a so-called Slayer Sanctuary for girls who decide they’d rather not fight. The plot is kind of lame, but there’s some good dialogue, particularly from Faith, and some insights into her deep feelings of regret for her early failings as a Slayer. This issue is drawn by Cliff Richards, who does a much better job than Jeanty at capturing the likenesses of the actors. He also seems to have a greater repertoire of facial expressions.

Lastly, issue 25 is called “Living Doll” and is written by Doug Petrie. Dawn has gone missing and Buffy and Xander follow her hoofprinty trail while Andrew tracks down Kenny, the guy responsible for casting the spell on her in the first place. Long story short, Dawn apologizes to Kenny, becomes human again, and spends some quality time with Buffy watching Veronica Mars. (Man, I miss that show.)

While the first two stories are pretty bad, the other three offer solid character moments even though the plots themselves leave something to be desired. I’ve said before that this is something a Buffy fan simply becomes used to, so it doesn’t bother me all that much. I’d probably be happier with a series full of vignettes like these than what is coming over the next couple of arcs.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 4 by Joss Whedon: B

From the back cover:
Buffy Summers unlocked the power of the Slayer in hundreds of young women, but in the future only one Slayer remains. Melaka Fray—introduced by Buffy creator Joss Whedon and artist Karl Moline in 2001—returns to comics in Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

When Buffy attempts to solve the mystery of her scythe, she’s propelled into the future, and into the path of Fray. In order to save their worlds, the two Slayers must fight against a threat more powerful than the two of them combined, while back in the twenty-first century, the Scottish Slayer base falls prey to a mystical bomb courtesy of the Biggest Bad—Twilight.

It’s been a long time since I reviewed any of the Season Eight comics. I’ve been keeping up with the individual issues, but just haven’t felt inclined to reread them when the collected editions come out. I still haven’t liked any arc as much as Brian K. Vaughan’s “No Future for You” (issues 6-10), and somewhere along the way things have gotten so ridiculous that I just refuse to admit/believe that any of these events can be considered canon. Season Eight will be ending soon—the fortieth and final issue is due on January 19 (Buffy’s birthday)—so it seems like a good time to get caught up with reviews and potentially air a few gripes.

Volume four collects issues 16-20 of the series, comprising the Whedon-penned arc “Time of Your Life” as well as Jeph Loeb’s one-shot, “After These Messages… We’ll Be Right Back!” And, actually, this arc is pretty good. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Following up on a message she received while in Japan, Willow concludes that she and Buffy need to go to New York because of some timey-wimey ripple of a future event that’s going to occur there. Once they arrive, a portal opens, sending Buffy two hundred years into the future (and leaving a slavering beastie in her place), into the path of a Slayer named Melaka Fray. Fray, some may remember, once had a comic series of her own and fans were curious how Fray’s future (where there’s only one Slayer) would tie in with the series’ continuity, in which Buffy essentially activates all the potential Slayers in the world.

Fray’s main foe is her twin brother, Harth. A vampire, he’s got tons of minions and has recently been linked to a dark-haired madwoman who speaks in riddles. One assumes this is hinting at Drusilla, but it’s actually Dark Willow, still alive and planning something unspecific with Harth. Stuff happens—my favorite bits demonstrate how the two Slayers approach their job differently—but the basic gist is that present-day Willow reopens the portal and Buffy is determined to go back to her own time, even if it means that Fray and her future will cease to exist. When Dark Willow blocks her way, Buffy stabs her with the scythe.

Now, this is pretty interesting and reads much better when collected all together than as single issues. My major problem with it, though, is that I have no idea what Willow’s motivation was. Why was she working with Harth? What was she helping him to achieve? Vampire dominion over earth? Why would she do that? If I had to guess I’d say that maybe she wanted the future to look as shitty as possible so that Buffy would be determined not to let things turn out like that. But the final page of the arc shows that Melaka and her version of the future didn’t disappear at all. It’s quite a sad end for Willow, all alone and dead on some dingy futuristic rooftop.

Coming off the end of this arc is the fluffy but fun “After These Messages,” in which Buffy has a dream in the style of the cartoon series version of the show that never panned out. It takes place during high school, so Joyce is there, and reminds Buffy of how simple her life used to be. It’s not just a throwaway piece, though, as Buffy gets some advice from Dream Angel that convinces her that she shouldn’t tell Willow about what happened in the future.

If I recall rightly, this is the last arc that I enjoyed, but we shall see. It could be that the others will also fare much better when read back-to-back instead of in monthly installments. Stay tuned!

Halloween Rain by Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder: C-

From the back cover:
Around Sunnydale, they say a scarecrow saturated with Halloween rain will come alive and slaughter anyone in sight. (Lovely place, Sunnydale.) Buffy’s best friends, Xander and Willow, used to think the tale was nonsense—but after a few adventures with Buffy, they’re not so sure.

Even without a maniacal scarecrow, a Sunnydale Halloween is a truly horrific happening. There are enough zombies and vampires about, ready to party hearty and eat some brains, to keep the Slayer and her friends up all night.

And then the rain starts to fall…

It just wouldn’t be Halloween Week without a Buffy book, now would it? Unfortunately, this one is nothing to get excited about.

The story is set in the first season, after the episode “The Pack,” since former principal Mr. Flutie (eaten by some hyena-possessed students in that episode) is dead and buried. It’s also Halloween, which is a problem, as Buffy was not in Sunnydale for Halloween of her tenth-grade year (1996-1997). I mean, I didn’t conduct an exhaustive search for confirmation that she transferred in the spring, but I’m pretty sure that is the case. (Update: A sign in episode three, “The Witch,” confirms that it’s 1996, so I was wrong.)

Anyway, there’s apparently a legend in town that says to stay away from scarecrows on rainy Halloweens, because they come alive. After hearing about this from Willow and Xander, a memory niggles at Giles until he works out a connection between scarecrows and Samhain, who is referred to as “the dark lord,” the spirit of Halloween,” and “the pumpkin king.” While Buffy is off fighting a slew of zombies in the graveyard, Giles prepares a bunch of symbols and wards and stuff to fight Samhain. There’s a battle in a field, a barn burns down with Samhain trapped inside, and Buffy wins. The end. Yawn.

The humdrum nature of the plot is really nothing new for a Buffy media tie-in novel; usually the main draw of these is how well the writers capture the characters’ voices. Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder went on to write many more Buffy books, but I’m sure this was their first, as it’s only the second of the series, published in 1997 (before the season two episode “Halloween” established that demons are actually not very interested in the holiday). As a result, their success with the characters is hit or miss.

A lot of Buffy’s dialogue is cheesy and her thoughts rather vapid. Like this one, for example:

If she didn’t start hanging with her friends more, they might adopt a new Slayer as their bud. Or not, since there weren’t any others.

On the other hand, the Xander/Willow dynamic is conveyed pretty well, and there is one brief, simple exchange that would’ve been fully at home in the show.

“It gets worse,” Willow said, and tugged on Xander’s hand.

“I hate worse,” Xander grumbled.

The authors also seem to have a fondness for the phrase “clone that thought,” since it’s used at least three times.

I can forgive a lame plot if the characters are written well, but Halloween Rain is a success in neither category.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Omnibus 1 by Joss Whedon, et al.: B

From the back cover:
The definitive collection of the first Buffy comics series starts here. This volume begins at the beginning—”The Origin,” a faithful adaptation of creator Joss Whedon’s original Buffy screenplay. The newly chosen Slayer’s road to Sunnydale continues by way of Vegas and a mental institution, and scenes of high school, the early Scoobies, and an English librarian lead the way into Season One—and The Goon creator Eric Powell gives a look at Spike and Drusilla causing havoc at the 1933 World’s Fair.

This omnibus series is the ultimate compilation of Dark Horse’s original Buffy comics and runs chronologically along the TV series’ timeline. A fitting companion to Whedon’s comics-based relaunch of the Buffy mythos.

Because this omnibus collects a variety of arcs from different points in the comic’s run—and created by various teams of people—I think it’ll be easiest to address each one separately.

“All’s Fair” by Christopher Golden, et al.
A short, murky story about the family of the Chinese Slayer Spike killed seeking vengeance at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. The dialogue is decent, though Drusilla’s tendency to speak nonsense is overused, but the character likenesses are pretty bad and the story’s boring, to boot. Thankfully, this one’s quite short.

“Buffy: The Origin” by Joss Whedon, et al.
This purports to be “a faithful adaptation” of Whedon’s original screenplay for the Buffy movie. If so, apparently Joss originally envisioned vampires as cheesy green creatures! Still, this is much better than the movie as I remember it, doing a good job at depicting Buffy’s growing distance from her materialistic friends and setting up her conflicting desires/destinies of “normal girl” versus “chosen one.” I also liked that the scene of Buffy meeting her watcher, Merrick, for the first time seems to have been lifted wholesale from the movie script for use in season two’s “Becoming, Part 1.”

“Viva Las Buffy!” by Scott Lobdell, et al.
After Buffy gets expelled from Hemery High for burning down the gym (full of vampires), she and Pike head off to Las Vegas to investigate a casino catering to vampires. The story itself is not very exciting—despite involving time travel, half-vampire Siamese twins, and Angel doing his own poking around—but it’s narrated by Pike and provides an explanation for his absence from Buffy’s life in the series. It is rather weird to see Buffy being all proactive in her duties to vanquish vamps here, when she starts season one of the series so keen to avoid her calling.

“Dawn & Hoopy the Bear” by Paul Lee
This short story takes place while Buffy is in Vegas. In an attempt to kill Buffy, a demon imbues a teddy bear with the spirit of a djinn, but the delivery guy mistakenly gives it to Dawn instead. Instead of killing her, the bear takes a liking to her and becomes her defender. It’s a little weird to read a solo Dawn story like this, since we know it didn’t really happen, but I presume this is supposed to be one of the false memories Dawn has of her childhood. It’s actually really cute and I liked it a lot.

“Slayer, Interrupted” by Scott Lobdell, et al.
In the season six episode, “Normal Again,” Buffy reveals that she was once sent to a mental institution after telling her parents about vampires. While I don’t think that works with the continuity established in season two, in which Joyce appears to learn about Buffy’s Slayerhood for the first time, it’s still interesting to see what supposedly happened there. (Intriguingly, in this comic, it’s Dawn who’s responsible for the secret getting out. I wonder if Lobdell intended to propose a solution that would allow Joyce’s original reaction and Buffy’s memories—altered after Dawn was inserted into her life—to coexist.)

Unfortunately, it’s just too much like the season three opener, “Anne.” Buffy doesn’t want to be the Slayer, she’s stuck somewhere with a lot of helpless teens being victimized by a demon, she finally accepts who she is, and comes to everyone’s rescue. The story ends with a newly confident Buffy heading home, but again, this doesn’t really match with the Buffy we first meet in the beginning of the TV series.

While the stories are all drawn by different people, they have some artistic commonalities. First of all, many of them have problems with eye color. The earlier pieces in the collection depict vampires with red eyes, though this is corrected later. I’m more annoyed by Giles and Wesley having brown eyes and Buffy and Willow having blue ones. Eye color aside, though, Buffy in these comics looks more consistently like Sarah Michelle Gellar than she does in the Season Eight series.

Also, it’s not just Buffy whose pre-Sunnydale life we glimpse. The stories by Scott Lobdell contain scenes of the Watchers Council deciding which candidate will best serve as Buffy’s new watcher (this is where Wesley comes in), the gradual dissolution of Joyce and Hank’s marriage, and one brief sighting of a lonely Willow being sneered at by Cordelia and her cronies. Although there are a few minor inconsistencies, these arcs also flow quite well in chronological order, even though they weren’t originally published that way.

I actually own all seven of these omnibi, so expect more reviews to come!

Blackout by Keith R. A. DeCandido: C-

blackoutFrom the back cover:
New York City in 1977 is vampire heaven. Serial killer Son of Sam is often blamed for their hits, and a citywide blackout gives them free reign of the streets, allowing them to get away with murder. Spike and his beloved Drusilla are in the Big Apple taking advantage of the situation, as is Vampire Slayer Nikki Wood, who has hunkered down with her son, Robin, in a Times Square apartment where she thinks they’ll be safe.

But no matter where she goes, Nikki has to watch her back. Spike has only one thing on his mind: to slay a Slayer. Adding to Spike’s list of challenges is a corrupt local vampire community that catches wind of his presence, and when they start messing with him, things get bloody interesting.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that “Fool for Love” is one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Occurring near the beginning of the fifth season, this episode finds Buffy asking Spike how exactly he managed to best two Slayers in his time and Spike concluding that, in the end, all Slayers have a death wish. The themes of this episode tie in with the magnificent fifth season finale, “The Gift,” and it’s incredibly important for the characters concerned and the series as a whole.

It’s unfortunate, then, that the tie-in novel that fleshes out Spike’s encounter with Nikki Wood, the second Slayer to meet death at his hands, is so crappy.

The plot isn’t too bad: we first meet Nikki in 1973 when she learns about her destiny and begins training, and pick up with her later in 1977 when she’s quite the badass and a local folk hero, preferring to live amidst the poor and disenfranchised of New York rather than with her Watcher, whose swanky place is located in a neighborhood where the residents can depend on police protection. A vampire-led criminal organization is her chief bane, and Spike becomes problem number two. They have a series of charged meetings and only after she cleverly uses him to exterminate her other foes do they finally have that climactic battle on the subway depicted in “Fool for Love.”

It seems that DeCandido has done his work making the narrative fit the two times we see Nikki and Spike in the series (she also appears in season seven’s “Lies My Parents Told Me”) as well as incorporating the 1977 blackout into the story. Spike and Dru sound mostly like themselves—though DeCandido gets the color of her eyes wrong—and it’s clear that Nikki is resourceful and special.

So… what’s the problem? DeCandido cannot write a non-stereotypical black character to save his life! Every single male black person is wearing outlandish, pimp-like attire, sporting an afro, and talking jive. Nikki’s the only female black character we see, but she is consistently being compared to heroines of blaxploitation films and greeted with hails like, “Right on, Big Mamma Jamma!” Maybe the dialogue is the result of DeCandido’s misguided efforts to evoke a seventies feel by loading every single sentence with period-appropriate slang, but it’s cringe-inducing. Here’s Nikki’s first line as an example:

No, sugar, they ain’t got nothin’ to do with that cat. Don’t worry, they’re gone and they ain’t never comin’ back, you dig?

In the end, what could’ve been a fairly decent story is ruined by DeCandido’s writing, which I can describe as nothing less than embarrassing. I feel like I ought to apologize to African-Americans on his behalf.