Dark Congress by Christopher Golden: B-

darkcongressFrom the back cover:
Since the beginning of time, the demonic races have gathered every century to resolve conflicts among them and to determine the course of their future. This centennial event is called the Dark Congress.

Buffy is horrified and disgusted to be included as an arbiter of these conflicts. After all, she is not a demon… is she? She knows so little about her powers that she cannot say for certain where they truly spring from. How can she spend so much time wallowing in the darkness without becoming part of it? Can she possibly agree to a truce with all the horrors of the world and allow them to come to the Hellmouth in Providence, Rhode Island without any attempt to stop them? And does she have a choice?

Dark Congress is unique because of it’s one of only two Buffy tie-in novels set after the conclusion of the series. (Here is the other. Its apparent cracktasticness is most appealing.) This removes some of the constraints placed upon a media tie-in author, and, free from said limits, Golden seizes the opportunity to do what many a fanfic author has done before him: break up Willow and Kennedy and resurrect Tara. Oh sure, lots of other stuff about demons happens, but c’mon. Who really cares about that?

Tara’s resurrection is actually handled admirably well for a novel such as this, prompting some very in-character reactions. Buffy, for example, wants to be happy but is cautious and worried. Later, after Tara proves herself to be genuine, she is fiercely protective of their happiness, a characteristic Buffy has displayed towards her friends’ relationships on the show, too. My favorite reaction, however, comes from a horrified Giles, whose very first words to Willow are, “What have you done?” I shan’t spoil how everything turns out, but their reunion is quite compelling.

Golden also has a good ear for the characters’ speech patterns, and there were many lines that I could hear perfectly in the actors’ voices, Oz and Faith especially. The plot about the demon council is really not very interesting, but it’s an excuse to bring all of our core characters (and a returning character from Golden’s Gatekeeper trilogy) together again. Although the whole back cover is devoted to the history of the Dark Congress, all you really need to know is that the lead demon, Kandida, wants to broker peace between demons and humans, but she’s killed, and a “mystery” ensues wherein the Scooby Gang seeks to find her killer(s). I say “mystery” because it is completely and utterly obvious who is responsible.

Obviously, most of this story is not going to fit with the canon Season Eight comic book series from Dark Horse. It seems Golden had a little bit of knowledge about it, though, since a mention is made of Dawn being away preparing a castle in Scotland to serve as the new Slayer headquarters. This book was published in August 2007 and the first issue of the comic was released in March of that year, so it seems possible that the reference was intentional and not merely a lucky guess.

In the end, this is one of the better Buffyverse books I’ve read so far. It seems like the demonic threats are always going to be lame in these stories, so the best anyone can hope for is a successful depiction of the characters, and Dark Congress does deliver on that front.

Ghoul Trouble by John Passarella: B-

Ghoul_TroubleFrom the back cover:
Something wicked has been preying on Sunnydale students—and whatever it is, its methods are pretty gruesome. Buffy locates some human bones that have been picked clean, and knows that she’s dealing with an unearthly evil. Some help from the Scooby Gang would be ideal, but they’ve run into trouble of their own. Oz and Xander are literally (perhaps unnaturally) mesmerized by a hottie new chick band headlining at the Bronze, and Willow has been captured by Sunnydale’s latest resident carnivores.

What they need is the Slayer. But in order to help her friends, Buffy must first dust a vampire—one that has an urgent interest in Joyce Summers, the unique ability to resist sunlight, and an open invitation to the Summers’ house…

I don’t think I even read the back cover blurb when I found this used several years ago. I think I just liked the goofy title and bought it on that fact alone. It certainly doesn’t sound very promising, does it? It turns out, though, that it’s actually pretty decent.

I’ve tallied up its various attributes into two columns: flaws and merits.

* The story is set in season three, but it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it occurs. Much is made of Cordelia and Xander having broken up, which would put it after episode 3.08, “Lover’s Walk.” Willow and Oz are together, which would place it after 3.10, “Amends.” However, there’s no mention at all of why Cordelia and Xander broke up or the fact that Willow and Oz are newly reconciled, so I am uncertain. There’s no mention of Faith at all, either.

* Tying in with my first point, there’s not a lot of relationship continuity. Why not mention Xander and Willow’s illicit smoochies? There were plenty of chances, including one scene where they’re imprisoned together and she’s surprised to learn that he thinks she’s pretty. Because Wesley is nowhere in sight during scenes in the school library, this probably takes place before 3.14, “Bad Girls,” so the incident should be fresh on everyone’s mind.

* The supernatural foes are very boring. We are reminded every time we see the ghouls about their green skin and many rows of teeth, and the vampire dude, Solitaire, has cheesy affectations like leaving playing cards at the scenes of his attacks and wearing only black and red so as to represent the suits in a deck of cards. Cheesy!

* Passarella has a really good feel for characterization and Whedony dialogue. I think it’s pretty easy to get characters like Buffy and Xander right, but when I read lines from Oz and Angel and can actually hear the characters saying them in my head, that’s a very good sign. Also, I snickered more than once.

* Action scenes are described in a manner that is easy to picture. It’s not that I enjoy details about the extent of a person’s injuries, but having a mental image of what’s going makes one feel as if one is watching an episode of the show, which I assume is the desired effect.

To sum up: the plot is dumb, but the dialogue is good. That’s not too different from many early episodes of the series, actually, and I’d ordinarily award a higher grade because of that, but Passarella really dropped the ball when it came to acknowledging the interpersonal complications among the group at this point in time. He’s written two other Buffyverse novels, both starring the cast of Angel, and I enjoyed this enough that I’ll probably seek those out as well.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 3 by Drew Goddard: C

From the back cover:
A team of Japanese vampires who can transform into wolves, panthers, and fog attack the Slayer compound in the highlands of Scotland, stealing Buffy’s mystical scythe—the weapon that transformed thousands of young women into Slayers. Unable to fight these mysterious new foes, Buffy sends Xander to see his old friend—the only vampire known to possess these incredible powers—Dracula.

I really disliked the “Wolves at the Gate” arc when it was coming out, but it works a little better when read all in one sitting, and with the stand-alone issue “A Beautiful Sunset” as an introduction. “A Beautiful Sunset” itself is quite good. In it, Buffy warns Satsu about the dangers of being in love with her, and has an encounter with the Big Bad, Twilight. I love that Twilight asks Buffy whether all of these additional Slayers have actually helped her in any way, and she can offer no response.

“Wolves at the Gate” spans issues twelve to fifteen, and it’s here where things start to get kind of annoying. How so? I’ll bust out the bullet points. Warning: full of spoilers.

* The Buffy/Satsu publicity buzz. Even though Joss insists that Buffy’s hook-up with a fellow Slayer was not a publicity stunt, you could’ve fooled me. There were reports of comic shops being told to stock up in advance on this one because it would be popular, and all kinds of interviews and stuff being given. I also don’t like that we never see how the two of them got to that point. Without that, I just can’t buy Buffy being attracted to a girl.

* Dracula. I am so tired of Season Eight bringing back random characters from the show. Please focus on the core group! Oh, and he supposedly lost his powers to this bunch of Japanese vampires by gambling.

* Andrew’s lecture on Dracula, during the course of which he says that Xander and Dracula have been letter-writing pals and that, after Anya died, Xander went to live with Dracula for a while. Um, what the hell?! This is stupid and retconny and entirely only there so that “Antique,” a short story Goddard contributed to the non-canon graphic novel Tales of the Vampires and which features Buffy coming to Dracula’s castle to retrieve Xander after this period of cohabitation, can become canon. I cry foul. (Note: Not that Andrew is at all a reliable source, but his comments are not contradicted.)

* Renee’s fate. Okay, yes, I never see these things coming, but jeez. Enough is enough. A happy ending for a couple would be more surprising these days.

* Mecha Dawn. Quite possibly the dumbest thing in this series yet. Why on earth would the Japanese vampires take the time to construct a Dawn mecha? What’s more, they have programmed it to say things like, “I cry a lot.” So they’ve, like, also taken the time to try to learn things about Dawn and her life? Probably this is supposed to be funny, but I think it’s incredibly stupid.

On the plus side, there is some good dialogue. When I first read these issues, I was peeved that Willow wasn’t mad at Buffy for taking advantage of Satsu’s feelings, but now their conversation on the subject works a bit better for me. There’s also lots of good Xander dialogue plus liberal use of the hand gestures Nicholas Brendon always employed. Too, I love Buffy’s reaction at the end of the fight upon hearing that the vampires are fleeing: “So chase them. No prisoners. Seal off the streets. Cut them down as they flee. Kill every single one of them.” Now that’s good continuity with Season Seven Buffy.

So, no, Wolves at the Gate is not a good arc. It has some good moments, but far too much of it is irksome. On its own, it earns a C-; the score for the volume is a bit higher because of “A Beautiful Sunset.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 2 by Brian K. Vaughan: A

From the back cover:
While Buffy is busy trying to uncover the mysterious new Big Bad known only as “Twilight,” Giles takes on a mission of his own that will require a Slayer who can handle a little dirty work. He recruits the notoriously rebellious Faith for an undercover job that demands her well-known penchant for violence. She must infiltrate the estate of a rogue Slayer and put a stop to this girl’s evil deeds no matter the cost.

This collection includes issues 6-10 of the series. The first four comprise Vaughan’s Faith arc that lends its name to this volume as subtitle—”No Future For You.” The last issue is a stand-alone written by Joss himself.

I’m current with the monthly issues of this series (up to 14 now), and I have to say that “No Future For You” is definitely my favorite arc thus far, which is a little weird since Vaughan was never a writer for the show. He really nails Faith, though, and all of her dialogue and inner thoughts ring true. I especially like her perspective on the conflicts she’s had with Buffy and her relationship with Mayor Wilkins. Here’s an excerpt:

Evil scumbag. That’s what most people think of the last guy who put me in a dress. But I don’t know. Dude may have been a bit of a snake… but he wasn’t a dog. Everybody thinks he was, like, exploiting me or whatever, but that’s not how it felt. So I totally get how chicks can get mixed up in the wrong crap. Even today, it’s still hard to look back at my time with that guy…and feel anything but loved.

Pretty awesome stuff. Vaughan also does well with the other characters, who both speak and act perfectly in character. I’m fascinated by the dynamic between Faith and Giles, especially in the scene where he mentions his own youthful rebellion and how they’re not so unalike, but the best is probably Buffy jumping to the absolute worst conclusion about Faith’s involvement with the rogue Slayer. It’s not only a very Buffy thing to do, but it also cuts Faith deeply to see that she will probably never really be trusted by Buffy, despite her various attempts at redemption.

Not so awesome, alas, is Georges Jeanty’s art. I’m not so miffed about it as this guy, but Faith really does look pretty awful in some panels. I realize that spot-on likenesses are not necessarily the artist’s goal, but she often looks like several different people per page, and each only marginally reminiscent of Eliza Dushku. I will, however, say that in more recent issues, Jeanty has drawn some truly exceptional panels of Willow.

Issue 10, “Anywhere But Here,” is important in its own right, featuring Buffy and Willow on a mission together and providing many answers, including where the funding for the Slayers came from and the current state of Willow’s relationship with Kennedy. Back at home, Dawn also finally discloses (to Xander) how she ended up gigantified. This is the kind of significant personal interaction I was missing in the first Buffy-centric arc, so I’m very pleased to get such a nice chunk of it here.

I really hope Vaughan writes an arc again soon or, even better, starts up a spin-off starring Faith and Giles. Sad to say, I would actually prefer that to the current arc that’s underway at present.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 1 by Joss Whedon: B

From the back cover:
Worldwide cult phenomenon Buffy the Vampire Slayer returns with Season Eight—only in comics! Series creator Joss Whedon once again takes up writing duties for this official sequel to the show, running the comics as he ran seven seasons of Buffy on TV. This opening story introduces a mysterious threat known as “Twilight” and plunges Buffy and the gang into their biggest adventure—without the limitations of a small-screen budget.

I’ve been reading these as they’ve been released each month, but enjoyed them more on this reread. Not only did the arc (entitled “The Long Way Home”) benefit from being read in one sitting, but I also found it easier to hear the dialogue in the actors’ voices this time, making it easier to feel that this really is happening to the characters, despite them being all two-dimensional and stuff.

The dialogue is pretty great, and the few scenes where the Scooby Gang is together (sans Giles) are my favorites of the arc—I just wish there were more of them. For a season opener, this is a lot of action and random familiar faces from the past (one of whom is a retcon so objectionable that I’m just going to pretend it didn’t happen), and small doses of character interaction. Hopefully that will shift in time. Right now, the series has moved onto a Faith arc and there’s been no real follow-up to these events yet.

The last chapter is a stand-alone story called “The Chain,” and tells the story of a girl tapped to be a decoy Buffy. It’s sad and probably the best single issue of the bunch collected here.

I find myself frequently annoyed by the inconsistency of the art in American comics and sadly, this series is no exception. While Xander and Willow look alright most of the time, Buffy either looks weird or, if she looks like herself at all, too young. In the original issues, Willow’s eyes were blue, but they’ve been corrected for this collection. The covers by Jo Chen are absolutely gorgeous, though.

Digesting the continuing adventures of Buffy in this format takes some getting used to. It definitely seemed more real to me on this reread than it did initially, so I’d advise anyone taking the plunge to give themselves a little time to adjust; it’ll grow on you.

The Suicide King by Robert Joseph Levy: C+

From the back cover:
A rash of student suicides sweeps through Sunnydale High, jolting the community. When the newly arrived grief counselor ends up killing himself, Buffy and the gang begin to suspect there’s something supernatural to blame. Soon one of their own begins to show signs of debilitating despondency, and it becomes a race against time for the Slayer to defeat the ancient threat known as the Suicide King.

This is the first book in the Stake Your Destiny series—a Buffy Choose Your Own Adventure book, in other words. It takes places in the second season, between the episodes “Reptile Boy” and “Halloween.”

This was fairly decent, for a book of its type. The dialogue wasn’t bad, and occasionally sounded quite true to the characters. It’s canonically correct, and even superficially touches on Angel’s quest for redemption. The variety of conclusions was interesting, too: two good outcomes, two fair outcomes (success with a price), and a plethora of bad outcomes.

My main gripe here is that it was almost always obvious which option would lead you to the end by the page number. Also, there were a couple of errors (like Buffy falling to the floor when outside) and several uses of the dreaded “magic with a k.”

I took care to chart my options, making sure I’d read every page. It really was kind of a pain in the butt, and ultimately not worth it. While the book transcended some of the limitations of the genre, it’s still a COYA book at its heart. There are more of these, but I think I’ll pass.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher’s Guide 1 by Golden and Holder: C+

From the back cover:
As long as there have been vampires, there has been the Slayer. One girl in all the world, to find them where they gather and to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their members. She is the Slayer.

Exclusive Interviews, Totally Pointy Profiles, Behind-the-Scenes Info, and Other Buff-stuff About the Hit Show.

The title Watcher’s Guide suggests to me that the guide is meant to augment the experience of someone watching the show. In addition to a description of the episodes, therefore, I expected at least some analysis, some discussion of what the episode was truly about, or its purpose in furthering the events of a particular story arc or a character’s development.

Instead, the action of each episode in the first two seasons is summarized in a few paragraphs, a quote of the week is chosen, romance progress is charted, and there’s a small section devoted to continuity between episodes. If one is already a watcher of the program, this information is irrelevent and redundant. I have found much more insightful episode commentary online.

On top of that, the summaries are fond of including questionable value judgments, deeming things hilarious or gorgeous, for example, that really aren’t, in my opinion. Example: Is the following exchange “hilarious,” as claimed, or merely cute, funny, and totally in character?

Oz: I’m gonna ask you to go out with me tomorrow night. And I’m kinda nervous about it, actually. It’s interesting.
Willow: Oh. Well, if it helps at all, I’m gonna say yes.
Oz: Yeah, it helps. It-it creates a comfort zone. Do you wanna go out with me tomorrow night?
Willow: (cringes and slaps her hand to her forehead) Oh! I can’t!
Oz: Well, see, I like that you’re unpredictable.

The latter half of the book is made up of sections devoted to monsters, relationships, cast and crew interviews, and a list of all the songs to appear in the episodes. The monsters and relationships sections just reiterated things that I already remembered from watching the show, though I guess the former could be useful if one, like, urgently needed to refresh their memory on Machida. Every member of the cast and crew that you could possibly think of got their own interview. Some of these were interesting, but they got repetitive. But hey, at least I now know about everyone’s scars, tattoos, or other distinguishing marks!

What is excellent about the Watcher’s Guide is that it often includes dialogue from the script that didn’t make it into the finished episode. This ranges anywhere from a couple of lines to full-blown scenes, some of which are awesome to have in print—like the dialogue we don’t get to hear from the phone call at the end of the episode “Passion,” for instance.

The Xander Years 2 by Jeff Mariotte: B

From the back cover:
Most teens have trouble finding themselves now and then, but when you’re living on a hellmouth, “trouble” is an understatement—especially if you’re Xander Harris. He has never been very popular, and has never had much luck with women, but he is uniquely Xander.

After a Sunnydale High field trip to the zoo, Xander becomes obnoxious and aggressive. Giles thinks it’s typical adolescent male behavior, but Buffy knows better. And when he finally scores “cool” points by making the Sunnydale High swim team, he’s thrown into the middle of something, well… fishy.

Still, once Xander is excluded from the Slayer’s most recent anti-apocalyptic campaign, he finds himself battling his own private evil—and saving Sunnydale High from a fate it never imagined.

Continuing the alliterative trend from volume one, the three episodes picked for novelization in this book (“The Pack,” “Go Fish,” and “The Zeppo”) are billed as three tales of transition, transformation, and transcendence. Um, okay. I didn’t really think Xander was that affected by donning skimpy swimwear. It’s interesting to note that in all three of these episodes, the villainous baddie ends up getting devoured.

I am happy to say that Jeff Mariotte does a better job conveying the thought processes of the characters than his predecessor from volume one, though frankly, that wouldn’t be difficult. Sometimes they’re covered in a simple paragraph, and I didn’t have any specific problems with those, and sometimes, when it’s something the character would’ve said in their mental voice, they are italicized. It’s the italicized thoughts that are more prone to being irritating, and occasionally, downright jarring. A little setup for this snerk-inducing example from “The Pack:” Xander is prowling around with the other hyena-possessed kids, feeling all wild and hungry. They’ve just sampled the hot dogs of some students, spurned them, and have now caught a whiff of something more appetizing.

The scent grew stronger as they stalked the halls, headed directly toward their prey. Something weak, something that could be brought down by the pack.

Or rather, the Pack, Xander thought, suddenly realizing that it should be capitalized.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we have an episode title!

Seriously, this is so stupid! There was just a scene where Xander was too affected to be able to comprehend geometry properly, but here he is contemplating the abstract significance of his little group and how it should thusly be conveyed in writing? How very primal a sentiment! *eyeroll*

Other than that, and noting that once, in “Go Fish,” the names of two swim team members were confused, I have nothing to complain about. Again, the major reason this is entertaining is because the original episodes were. Mariotte neither added much of value nor fouled them up.

The Xander Years 1 by Keith R. A. DeCandido: B-

From the back cover:
Unfulfilled crushes. Awkward first conversations. A date who wants you… dead.

Having a Y-chromosome in Sunnydale is never easy. But Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s friend Xander Harris seems to find more than his share of trouble with the opposite sex.

At first Xander is happy being the teacher’s pet—until his schoolboy crush brings out her true animal instincts. Then his whirlwind romance with the exotic foreign exchange student falters when she demands the ultimate sacrifice.

Some members of the Slaying squad might say that dating Cordelia Chase could kill a guy. But Xander’s relationship with the high-maintenance Cordy actually seems to be working out—until she decides he’s seriously harming her social standing. His crafty plan to win her back may earn him more love than one guy can handle.

Now, collected for the first time, are three stories from the hit TV series chronicling Xander’s search for love on the Hellmouth.

This book includes novelizations of the teleplays for “Teacher’s Pet,” “Inca Mummy Girl,” and “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered,” hailed on the front cover as three tales of danger, duplicity, and desire. Alliterative! Framing these is a little piece where Xander has been to The Bronze, had his clothes criticized by Cordelia, made out with her, and now has returned home to compare all his various romantic experiences. It doesn’t strike me as particularly Xander-like, but at least it’s brief.

I think it’s cute that the font for chapter headings and page numbers has little blood dribblies. I guess it’s cheesy, but for some reason it amuses me. Also amusing, but in a sad way, are the typos that made it through an evidently lackadaisical editing process. Examples: in “Teacher’s Pet,” the real Mrs. French wears a “cardigan sweather.” In “Inca Mummy Girl,” when Willow goes to dissuade the delinquent kid from mucking about the museum exhibit, she heads off to “soothe the savage breast.”

Some of the invented thoughts for the characters are entertaining, like Xander’s revelation that, when five, he once retaliated against Cordelia by dumping a bowl of ice cream on her head. Spike’s are pretty decent, but I think that’s because Spike doesn’t do a lot of self-filtering before he speaks, so his thoughts are most like something he’d actually say. Most of the rest are either:

1. Lame – Like the very generic desire to see the world ascribed to the real Ampata (foreign exchange student in “Inca Mummy Girl”) before he gets mummified. His supposed last thought? “Now I’ll never see Paris.” Groan.

2. Unnecessary – Xander, after loudly declaring Angel to be an attractive man in front of some jock types, thinks:

Bad enough Blayne’s dissing my studliness, the last thing I need is everyone hearing me talking about attractive men.

Way to overexplain the joke, dude.

3. Just plain wrong – (Dingoes Ate My Baby is unloading their equipment for a performance. Devon is slacking and talking to Cordelia.)

Of course, had Oz actually been upset, it probably would’ve been more due to the fact that Oz didn’t have a girlfriend of his own to be distracted by. It’s not like Devon ever carried the heavy stuff anyhow.

Does that sound even a little like Oz thoughts? Not to me.

Of slight canonical interest is that the photo of Xander, Willow, and Buffy in 10th grade that’s seen several times in the series is declared twice to have been taken by Willow’s mom. Except Willow’s mom canonically shows zero interest in her life until the episode “Gingerbread,” which aired January 1999. This book was published in February 1999, so probably couldn’t have been changed once Sheila’s general disinterest in her daughter had been established. It was also published before the whole “who exactly sired Spike” thing was cleared up, since Spike specifically mentions Angel siring both he and Drusilla.

By far, the best reason for reading these novelizations is the dialogue from the real episode that couldn’t be fudged with. Even though “Inca Mummy Girl” isn’t one of my favorite episodes, I’d forgotten that it has several great quotes in it. The best one (in my opinion) looks rather flat on the page, but when I hear Xander actually saying it, it still evokes a giggle: “What he lacks in smarts, he makes up in lack of smarts.”

Overall, it’s an okay book, but that’s entirely due to the original writers of these episodes. Without their actions and dialogue, I don’t know whether this author could portray these characters at all convincingly.