Monday, February 12, 2007

Book Review Double Feature: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Go Ask Malice by Robert Joseph Levy
Blackout by Keith R.A. DeCandido

It's probably indicative of how much I loved "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in its prime that even now, more than three years after the show ended, I'm still interested in that fictional world, its characters and mythologies.

However, I find that I'm not nearly as invested in the titular heroine anymore; in fact, when I scour the Net or local bookstores for Buffy fiction, I try my best to avoid Buffy herself. Why? Well... here's the thing. From my perspective, Buffy Summers is a ruined character. Marti Noxon took a sympathetic yet empowered everygirl, and made her an obnoxious, self-righteous bitch with more issues than 2000AD. So much of seasons 6 and 7 is pure ugliness, with the mutual rapes and the ceaseless emo whining, and no one's really stepped in to redeem her since. I'm hoping the upcoming "eighth season" from Dark Horse will at least have a mitigating effect - if anyone can do it, Joss Whedon and Brian Vaughan can.

In the meantime, I've been fortunate enough to stumble onto two novels that don't center around Buffy at all. Robert Joseph Levy presents Faith's pre-Sunnydale backstory in "Go Ask Malice", while Keith R.A. DeCandidio's "Blackout" expands the glimpses we've had of Nikki Wood into a full-fledged tale of New York in the late '70s. In that sense, the books share common elements, but they're very different in terms of how they present their protagonists.

"Go Ask Malice" is subtitled "A Slayer's Diary"; the idea is that we're reading Faith's journal, discovered in the ruins of Sunnydale after the events of the series finale. So it's Faith telling her story here, starting six months before her Calling and ending after her fateful first encounter with Kakistos. Levy's recreation of Faith's voice is surprisingly accurate, taking into account that the bulk of her narrative is set before her transformative traumas occur. As a result, she's not nearly as jaded and cynical as she was when she met Buffy, but she's not pristine either. We can clearly see the shadow of what she'll become.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is how Levy uses the epistolary format. We expect complete access to Faith's innermost thoughts, only to discover that she's writing at the insistence of her social worker, and her fear of prying eyes leads her to constantly mislead the reader and edit herself. For example, the very first entry provides an idyllic, almost utopian description of Faith's birthday, but concludes with the following: "P.S. Oh, and by the way, one more thing, if you're reading this and have no idea who I am: All of the above is complete and utter crap." Other entries are partially erased or blacked out. Ironically, her caution is justified: we are, in a sense, invading her privacy, guilty of the same voyeurism she expects from others. So Faith remains in complete control of her story (the tragedy, of course, being that she lacks the self-awareness to really understand what's happening to her).

The diary itself also grows and changes as the novel progresses; by the time she begins training with her first Watcher, the made-up scenarios trickle to a halt, replaced with shorthand notes about demons and vampires wedged between entries, or fragments from other texts "taped" into her own. And at the end of the story, it becomes a hastily-written goodbye letter - abrupt and open-ended, even though we know what's coming next.

If this novel has one serious flaw, it's when Levy tries to craft an adventure for Faith to start off her tenure as the Slayer, only to get entangled in a byzantine subplot about vengeance demons, Arashmaharr, the spirit of a dead Slayer and imaginary friends. It's a bit much, especially since it ends in a massive infodump that doesn't quite remain true to the diary format (ie: we're supposed to believe Faith could replicate a long-winded explanatory speech word-for-word?).

Still, this is primarily a character piece, and on that level, Levy does a fairly good job of presenting a Faith we've never seen before, yet one who evokes familiarity as well. Her past as he depicts it is mostly his invention, but since that's not an area likely to be explored in official Whedon canon, I'm happy to use "Go Ask Malice" as Faith's official origin story.

Keith DeCandido's approach to Nikki Wood in "Blackout" is quite different. Rather than construct his own take on her backstory and graft it onto what we've already seen, DeCandido works entirely within the context of the televised scenes. In "Fool For Love", Nikki's appearance was clearly inspired by/an homage to the blaxpoitation genre - long leather coat, Afro, disco beat in the background during her fight with Spike. DeCandido expands on that, giving "Blackout" the shape of a Shaft-esque narrative where Nikki is the "Big Mama Jama" stalking the streets, at war with a vampiric crime organization. Indeed, Nikki sees herself as a mix of Cleopatra Jones and Batman, and that sense of cool (in the '70s meaning of the word) radiates from the character, both internally and externally. DeCandido creates a vivid, realistic portrait of New York circa 1977; his love for the city comes through in the way he describes the people, the streets, that slang that looks almost comical until you realize people did talk like that thirty years ago. He blends history and fiction (ie: conflating vampire activity with the infamous 1977 blackout and the ensuing riots) while never losing sight of what's happening to his protagonist.

Seventh-season canon is taken into account here, and Robin Wood is present as a precocious four-year-old; fortunately, his presence here isn't nearly as grating as his adult counterpart's would eventually become. In fact, DeCandido takes advantage of Nikki's motherhood, using it to add another dimension to the character and to the very concept of a Slayer. I can think of only one other story that tried to tackle this issue - "Abomination" from the first "Tales of the Slayer" anthology, and based on the name alone you can probably guess how that turned out.

But of course, the core of the novel concerns Nikki's battles against the undead, both on the page and off it (DeCandido makes some interesting references to an as-yet-unwritten conflict with Darla, and a victory over Dracula). On that level, "Blackout" does its job well: it provides an entertaining adventure that dovetails into Nikki's rivalry with Spike - the outcome of which is never truly in doubt. But DeCandido also succeeds on another level entirely: when "Fool For Love" first aired and we watched Spike kill the then-unnamed 1977 Slayer, we might have felt a bit sad for this kick-ass cipher, but it's clearly inevitable within the context of Spike's biography, which he's retelling to Buffy. By the end of "Blackout", I didn't want Nikki to die. And this is perhaps DeCandido's greatest triumph: he reverses "Fool For Love", makes Spike a secondary character in Nikki's story rather than the other way around. In doing so, he makes us see her as something more than "Spike's victim".

Also of interest is DeCandido's characterization of Spike. The novel contains a framing sequence set in season 6, where Buffy and Spike face off against a vampire who was involved in the events of 1977. It's a bit clumsy, very clearly stapled on as an afterthought, and I get the feeling DeCandido only used it to placate purists who wouldn't touch the book unless Buffy Summers was in attendance. At any rate, as I said, there's something peculiar about the way DeCandido writes Spike; or rather, the way DeCandido writes Spike is indicative of the schism that made him such a problematic figure after season 3. Namely, there are no mitigating factors in Spike's villainy, not the slightest hint that he could ever be anything but pure evil. In the framing sequence, Spike is as much Buffy's reformed lap dog as he indeed was at that point in the series, but once we go back to 1977, we see Spike as deviant, a fiend, an enemy of the Slayer. And this is hardly an interpretation unique to DeCandido; in "Spike and Dru: Pretty Maids All In A Row" (another highly enjoyable and well-written pre-Sunnydale novel), Christopher Golden depicts Spike as a monstrous, infant-devouring demon.

And that's exactly where Marti Noxon fucked up. She saw Spike as a "bad boy" rather than a monster, and had him "tamed" by the heroine. And that created a dissonance in Spike's character arc, because his pre-series history never suggests redemption as a most remote possibility. Sure, you could make the same claim about pre-soul Angelus, but let's not forget that Spike was helping the Scoobies out three years before getting his soul back. That's the schism at the heart of Noxon's Spike: he still (proudly) lays claim to some pretty horrific acts of violence and bloodshed, but at the same time we're supposed to see some hope of his eventual turn to antihero, or even plain heroism. The villain became fetishized to the point where he became a leading character in a story that wasn't even his to begin with.

"Blackout", conversely, is not a story about Spike. It's a story about Nikki Wood, the Vampire Slayer. And you know what? It's all the more interesting for that.


Keith R.A. DeCandido


A bit belated, but thanks for the comments! It's nice to see so thoughtful a review of my work....

(I hope you don't mind, I linked to this from my own blog.)

Keith R.A. DeCandido

Diana Kingston-Gabai


I don't mind at all. :) Thanks for the book! And I'll be looking forward to "Supernatural: Nevermore".