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!

Naked Heat by Richard Castle: B

From the front flap:
When New York’s most vicious gossip columnist, Cassidy Towne, is found dead, Heat uncovers a gallery of high-profile suspects, all with compelling motives for killing the most feared muckraker in Manhattan.

Heat’s murder investigation is complicated by her surprise reunion with superstar magazine journalist Jameson Rook. In the wake of their recent breakup, Nikki would rather not deal with their raw emotional baggage. But the handsome, wise-cracking, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s personal involvement in the case forces her to team up with Rook anyway. The residue of their unresolved romantic conflict and crackling sexual tension fills the air as Heat and Rook embark on a search for a killer among celebrities and mobsters, singers and hookers, pro athletes and shamed politicians.

This new, explosive case brings on the heat in the glittery world of secrets, cover-ups, and scandals.

In this second outing for “Richard Castle,” Detective Nikki Heat and her squad are working two cases—one the death of a produce delivery driver and the other the murder of Cassidy Towne, a gossip columnist with scads of powerful enemies. Magazine reporter Jameson Rook has been shadowing Towne, planning to pen a feature on her, so he provides information for the investigation. While leads are followed and the (lamentably somewhat obvious) conclusion pursued, Heat and Rook deal must also deal with the awkwardness resulting from their fairly recent breakup.

Although I definitely enjoyed Heat Wave, the first media tie-in mystery for the ABC show Castle, Naked Heat succeeds more as an independent entity. The characters are less obviously stand-ins for characters on the show, and though large portions of the investigation still remind me of the TV series, that’s not always a bad thing. For example, it’s rare that a mystery novel makes me giggle aloud, a feat that Naked Heat achieved several times (once by way of a Firefly reference).

The main characters really are the chief draw here. The mystery is better than in the prior book—at least, what I can remember of its mystery, which isn’t much—but still involves glitzy types like mobsters and pop stars, which I just can’t care about. A few intense action sequences spice up the narrative, but it also drags in places. The most compelling aspect of the story for me was the detectives’ negative reaction to Rook’s recently published profile of Heat—both because it portrayed her as the star of the squad while marginalizing the contributions of the others and because unwelcome publicity is now hounding her at every turn—and his realization of how his approach to the article affected its subjects. I found his contrition believable.

With this installment, I think the book series has proven itself capable of standing on its own. As I said before, it’s a rare mystery that can make me laugh. Though the book is definitely not without its flaws, at this point I think I can safely say that even if this series bore no relation to a TV show I happen to watch, I would probably enjoy it to the same degree.

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.

Apollo 23 by Justin Richards: B

From the back cover:
An astronaut in full spacesuit appears out of thin air in a busy shopping centre. Maybe it’s a publicity stunt.

A photo shows a well-dressed woman in a red coat lying dead at the edge of a crater on the dark side of the moon—beside her beloved dog ‘Poochie.’ Maybe it’s a hoax.

But as the Doctor and Amy find out, these are just minor events in a sinister plan to take over every human being on Earth. The plot centres on a secret military base on the moon—that’s where Amy and the TARDIS are.

The Doctor is back on Earth, and without the TARDIS there’s no way he can get to the moon to save Amy and defeat the aliens.

Or is there? The Doctor discovers one last great secret that could save humanity: Apollo 23.

In the run of the Doctor Who: New Series Adventures books, this one comes in at number 37. At some point I’ll go back and read the earlier ones, but I’m really enjoying the new season with the eleventh doctor and couldn’t resist the temptation to check out the first book to feature him and his spunky Scottish companion, Amy.

I’m used to media tie-in books being fairly crappy, so Apollo 23 was a pleasant surprise. Oh, it’s not great literature or anything, but the characterization of Eleven and Amy is very solid, with dialogue that I can easily hear the actors delivering and several lines that elicit a grin. The basic plot is somewhat reminiscent of Dollhouse: there’s a secret base on the moon where experiments are being carried out on prisoners. The goal of the experiment is ostensibly to remove memories of bad experiences that led to criminal activity, but the technology winds up being used to create “Blanks” whose personalities are stored elsewhere while alien minds are imprinted upon them.

There’s more involving quantum links between Earth and the moon, but it’s really a sort of alien invasion/body snatchers story. The Doctor gets to zip around impressing people with his brilliance while Amy does a lot of snooping about. If this were an episode of the show, I’m sure it would be a disappointment, but in this format, it’s a quick and enjoyable read that might help ease the pain of the long wait ’til the Christmas special. I’ll be reading more!

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.