NB: We have a suspicion that many of the Bitchery are Buffy fans, which means this squee is in good company. This review from Crystal Anne With An E was originally graded “A with Extra Squee Because Buffy,” but we felt bumping up up to a full on squee was fair.
Crystal reads a lot, cross-stitches, and is an autism consultant by day and goes to library school by night. She is a Hufflepuff.
So, it was sometime in the last year or so that it was announced that there would be a new novel set in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, about a new Slayer.
I did this:
First, we have some history that bears unpacking here. I have been a Buffy fan from the jump. I had seen the movie, and was not the hugest fan of it (although I maintain that it has its merits: Luke Perry was pretty good in it and Paul Reubens’s death was hysterical). But the TV show caught me from the beginning. That show was an example of what you could do with note-perfect, lightning-in-a-bottle casting, great writing, and an approach that took all genres and found a way to make them all talk to each other and be best friends. It could be the funniest show on TV one minute, and rip your heart out of your chest the next (possibly literally). I got my dad, who was deployed at an Air Force base away from us at the time, into it, and we would have post-Buffy phone debriefings once the show was over. When I started dating my husband in early 1999 (during the third season), he quickly grew to know and accept one not-up-for-debate rule; if he wanted to see me on a Tuesday, he had to watch Buffy (not a hardship, it was soon one of his favorite TV shows as well).
Did it have flaws, did it have episodes that didn’t work? Sure. But as a body of work, it still stands up, and at its best, I still refer to it as my favorite TV show of all time. That said, I am fully aware of the fact that, a couple of years back, Joss Whedon’s ex-wife, Kai Cole, published an essay that detailed his abusive behavior toward her and his conduct with some of the actresses that he worked with. Whedon is a trash person, full-stop. Buffy remains a work that I can continue to love, but a lot of that also is based in the work of the cast and the rest of the writing staff, who don’t deserve my ire, and the fact that I have loved it for so long. I wish he was a better person, because he needs to be, and the legacy of this show needed him to be. There was a taint when I read the news about him that I had to come to terms with, and it took some time.
So, back to Slayer.
I have not always been a sucker for extended universes, but you mention Buffy and I’m going to do this:
In addition, I knew of Kiersten White’s Conqueror’s Saga books, and while I hadn’t read them (I have since read And I Darken), from what I knew of her writing, she sounded like a good fit for this job.
Well, folks, fast-forward many, many moons later, and Slayer finally got into my eyeballs.
You guys, this book was written for me. Despite the fact Ms. White and I have never met, she clearly sat down and thought to herself, “Gee, how do I make this one random 40 year-old lady in Florida super happy?”.
First, the book was written for both the old fans and the new. Without making it so info-dumpy that all of the old fans of the show were tapping their feet impatiently, the book made it so that even someone new to the Buffy mythos could keep up with what was happening. She also addressed events that took place in the comic books, so if you have been keeping up with them, you didn’t have the jarring experience of having everything you knew abruptly being thrown out (looking at you on behalf of my husband, Star Wars EU), and you also got quickly brought up to speed if you were like me and checked out of the comics sometime around the point that Buffy and Angel screwed a universe into existence.
In addition, the book was full of clever references, used effectively. Many of the people who are what’s left of The Watcher’s Council have noticeably familiar last names (e.g. Post, Wyndam-Pryce). They don’t beat the reader over the head, but they let you know that the book knows what universe it’s playing in. Take this bit of dialogue in which our heroes are doing that time-honored Watcher research:
“This one has a section on fear demons. Nasty little blokes. Emphasis on ‘little’.”
I cackled, hearing Gachnar’s squeaky little voice in my head.
As for the new characters, there is a lot to be mined in a character like Nina, who grew up not only aware of the Slayers and of Buffy’s existence, she grew up resentful of them and outright hating Buffy, whom she holds responsible for the death of her father. In gaining her Slayer power, she learns a different perspective on the actions that Buffy took and continues to take. Her background informs how she approaches the role of Slayer, in that she started out studying as a medic, was pretty far down on the power hierarchy among what’s left of the Watcher’s Council, and generally considered herself something of a scaredy-cat weakling.
Her determination to save others, sometimes at the expense of “the mission” puts her at odds with both how the Watchers expect a Slayer to behave, and her own tendencies, as the Slayer part of her craves physical action, whereas her nature tends toward caution and information-gathering. There’s also an interesting sibling relationship between Nina and her twin, Artemis, as her ascension to Slayer causes the reversal of long-held roles, which is a comfortable experience for neither. I also enjoyed the ancillary cast, who will clearly form an eventual Scooby Gang of their own. Much of Buffy’s strength lay in her relationships with her friends and family, and White strikes a similar tone with her treatment of these characters. That said, she does leaven the cast with a bit more diversity than Buffy did (let’s be real, it was a very white show, as Mr. Trick reminded us), and a variety of sexual orientations are represented.
In addition, and I feel like this was probably the hardest part, she got the feel of Buffy. It had the strength of story, and the humor, and the heart that I expect of something that is going to be associated with that property. Several of the references and jokes, both old and new, made me smile and occasionally cackle out loud.
It’s been a long time since I got a new adventure in Buffy’s world, and while the characters were new, there was a distinct familiarity that made me feel like I had hung out with some old pals. Like the original, this was a story about a girl that carries unexpected power and responsibility, and how that affects every action she can ever take, whether she wants it to or not. In addition, I always enjoy a story that is a study in power, how it’s gained, how it’s used, and how it affects us, which this is. I also loved that the book almost trolled the universe in parts, such as this statement from Artemis: “Once a part of Watcher society, the only ways out are death, prison, or failure so complete you join Wesley Wyndam-Pryce in working for a vampire named Angel.”
While I feel like this book was written with the older Buffy fans firmly in mind, and by someone that clearly loved the universe, I would add that newer fans, even those who may still be in the process of discovering Buffy’s story, have no reason to be afraid of picking this up. I don’t think they’ll be confused. Some of the more obscure references may be lost on them (oh, hey, look at this book on history of Pylea), but there are enough funny exchanges that have nothing to do with the original show (“I once switched out her focusing crystals with rock candy. She didn’t notice. So when she complains about magic being gone, just know she wasn’t good at it when it was here.”) that the humor and story hopefully would still remain solid for someone without the background knowledge. Even without the connection to the broader Slayer universe, this remains an effective story about a girl just discovering how to have power and use it in the ways that feel right to her, as well as cope with education, mean girls, family conflict, and a very cute Watcher boy. This is, after all, still a sixteen year old girl, and she has her own story to tell.
I look forward to seeing this series continue. Long live Nina, the Vampire Slayer.