Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Review

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PORTAL THROUGH TIME

by Alice Henderson

reviewed by Shiai Mata

Buffy

 

Buffy has faced so many varied menaces, both in the novels as well as in the television series, that it can’t be easy for a writer to come up with an innovative new challenge for the Slayer. Happily, Alice Henderson has elected to use one that is not only relatively unknown to Buffy, but one in which all of the main characters can really be put to good use: time travel.

(Time travel was used by Christopher Golden in his THE LOST SLAYER, of course, but in that instance, we saw a projected future. And, paradoxically, as that novel was set during the fourth season of BtVS, and PORTAL THROUGH TIME takes place during the second year, Buffy hasn’t encountered that previously published experience yet. Confused? Welcome to the ways of time travel!)

This story is supposedly set during the early months of 1998, but based upon certain factors, it actually fits more comfortably into the early fall of '97: Buffy, Willow and Xander are now juniors at Sunnydale High, and it apparently isn’t all that long since Buffy foiled an attempt by the Master’s acolytes to return him to (un)life, whereupon Buffy smashed the Master’s bones to dust, ending all hopes of reviving him. There’s no mention of the Anointed One, the Master’s heir; nor of vampires Spike and Drusilla, who eventually dust the “Annoying One” and take over the remnants of the Master’s cabal.

Three of the Master’s devotees... Lucien, Victor and Jason... have a plan to not simply bring the Master back, but to actually change history so that he was never killed. They have acquired two ancient mystical artifacts which, when wielded together, can actually create a “portal” through the time/space continuum itself, allowing them to go into the past and return safely. They have decided that the best course of action is to make certain that Buffy Summers never kills the Master. And, not wanting to face the Slayer on their own, they make the very sensible decision to go far enough back into the past to kill her before she was called as the next Chosen One.

And they do. Twice. And quite gruesomely (more on this later). But each time, they return to modern day (1997/8, that is) Sunnydale to discover that not only has the Master not been saved, but things are worse for them than when they left. Clearly, merely murdering Buffy isn’t enough... fate still finds a means to thwart their goal.

They determine that simply eliminating Buffy before she is chosen isn’t enough; her death, although disruptive, isn’t enough to change events too drastically. So what must be done, they determine, is to radically alter the Slayer line itself, so that history will be so distorted, and there’s no chance that any Slayer will be able to stop the Master as he frees himself from his mystic prison beneath Sunnydale and opens the Hellmouth, unleashing a literal hell on Earth.

Using the circumstances from one of their altered futures to acquire a set of Watcher’s Journals, they study them, pick four important Slayers from history and target them for assassination. They then go into the past to carry out their first planned killed, set in 60 C.E. on the island of Anglesey.

Luckily, Buffy and Angel have stumbled across Lucien’s lair, found his notes and, with the help of her Watcher, Giles, they have discerned what the nefarious plot is. As Giles puts it, having a Slayer die even a week before her known time of death could cause someone other than she whom history records to be called as the next Chosen One, and reality would veer off into a different direction from there. Realizing the absolute necessity of preventing the vampires from killing any of Buffy’s predecessors, the Scoobies elect to use the incantations used by the vampires to activate the magic artifact (dubbed the “Wand of Wells” by Lucien after TIME MACHINE author H.G. Wells) and follow the assassins back into the past to stop them.

Thanks to the paradox of using the same spell as the one used by the vampires, Buffy and her friends will arrive in the past at very nearly the exact same time as the vamps, if not always in the same place... as explained by Xander, who boasts that a young lifetime of watching DOCTOR WHO and the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies has given him a special insight into the complexities of traveling through the tempus.

Raiding the S.H.S. drama department’s wardrobe closet for costumes that could help them pass for natives in the British Isles of 60 C.E., they go to help save the life of Incinii the Druid, who is the first target of the vampires. Unfortunately, the vampires have chosen moments of great historic upheaval during which to strike, so as to make use of the confusion around the Slayers, and the event the Scoobies land right in the middle of is a Roman invasion of a Celtic stronghold.

The trick now is to find one lone person whom they know only by name in the midst of thousands as a massive battle is about to erupt. And as only Giles knows the language... more or less... he’s the only one who can communicate for them. Suffice to say, they do locate her, but not without a great deal of effort and a bit of luck. And finding her is only half of the solution; they still have to save her life, which proves problematic between the vampires, the Romans, and the magical Earth creatures which the Druid mages call forth to help defend Anglesey.

Following that trip (and appropriate costume changes back in Sunnydale), Buffy and her friends journey back to ancient Sumeria, where they meet the fabled Gilgamesh himself, then to Civil War Tennessee in the midst of the bloody Battle of Shiloh, and finally to Paris during the Reign of Terror. Each time, they not only have to locate the Slayers and stop the assassins, but deal with threats inherent to their times and surroundings, as well as suffer serious injuries that painfully hamper them in their quests.

As a result, this is an exceptionally fast-paced tale, with action literally bursting from almost each page. And yet, Henderson invests a tremendous amount of historical detail into the story. Reading her account, one fully believes that if they could travel back to Shiloh in 1862, they would find everything precisely as she described it (which is entirely probable, since the author actually traveled to the battlefield to research the geographic and historic facts). But such details don’t slow the story down; they enhance it, and richly so.

Of course, given the depth of historical accuracy, there’s the possibility that the characters may suffer in comparison, overwhelmed by the plot. Happily, Henderson has a real knack for writing the Scoobies, and she clearly has affection for them. They aren’t simply tagging along while Buffy does all of the work. Each contributes. In particular, Giles not only gets to put his intellect to work, but in the heat of battle, the Ripper of his “dark past,” as he succinctly puts it, emerges... and woe be to the pack of vampires who try to mess with him!

Throughout, Henderson sprinkles some nice small touches into the story, like the Scoobies taking their first-ever breaths of pure, clean, unpolluted air (although they had to go back a few millennia to find it). She also does a good job of injecting humor and wisecracks into the dialog, and I especially appreciated the fact that she made Buffy both wryly funny and iron-willed serious at all of the proper times, without making her seem like an airhead or a shrew. And I was particularly amused by how Willow so concisely explained the French Revolution by equating it with high school life in the late 20th Century.

Angel is a part of the story as well, although he remains behind at the library to guard Lucien after the vampire ringleader is captured. Besides, a few of their time jumps land the Scoobies smack dab into the middle of daylight, and it wouldn’t do for Angel to burst into flames. But as much as Buffy misses having him at her side through all of this, that disappointment pales in comparison to the shock she receives when she finds her sojourn back to 18th Century France puts her into conflict with... Angelus! And more shocking still is the result of that confrontation, resulting in Buffy having to figure out what she must do to restore the history she inadvertently alters.

While the core Scooby Gang is here, conspicuous in their absence are Cordelia (although an alternate timeline version of her makes a cameo), as well as Jenny Calendar. Nor is Willow’s boyfriend Oz even mentioned, which only strengthens the argument that this story takes place early in Buffy’s second year. Principal Snyder gets name checked, but unfortunately he never darkens any doorways.

This is Buffy’s first encounter with any other Slayers (remember, up until her, there could be only one at a time. It was her first death and resurrection which activated her successor, Kendra... although Buffy didn’t know that yet), and she finds that despite the obvious differences between them and her, there are strong similarities as well, and not just the superpowers they share. Unique bonds are formed between Buffy and her successors.

There is no official line-up of past Slayers, but quite a few have been introduced in other stories. Henderson takes care not to have her four original Slayers (Ejuk of 2700 B.C.E., Incinii of 60 C.E., Marguerite of 1792, and Agatha Primrose of 1862), cross timelines with those previously established characters, but she does invoke the names of Lucy Hanover and Frankie Massie, two Slayers from the same Civil War era as Agatha.

Interestingly, Buffy’s younger sister Dawn is never mentioned... although the possibility she exists is not discounted. Dawn presents a conundrum; the character was not introduced until the fifth season of BtVS... a magical construct which, we’ve been told, now existed retroactively. That means Dawn should, technically, be a part of all of the pre-S5 tales. Henderson avoids the issue by simply not mentioning her at all, but neither does she assert that Buffy is an only child. So, fans are left to have it whichever way they like.

Although this is a Young Adult novel, there’s a particularly large amount of violence in this story... by design. Ordinary human violence doesn’t figure greatly into most of Buffy’s adventures, but here, there’s no escaping it. Whether it’s Romans and Druids plunging swords into one another, Rebs and Yanks shooting rifles and cannon, or French aristocrats falling to the guillotine, blood flows throughout. Its man’s inhumanity to man on gory display, and it’s meant to disgust us the readers as much as it does Buffy.

Also disturbing are the two deaths of Buffy from the abortive original plan of the vampires, first as a freshman cheerleader at Hemmery High back in Los Angeles, and then as a toddler in her own back yard when that first murder doesn’t produce the desired results. We’ve seen Buffy die a few times already, of course, but never before has she been so helpless and normal. It’s unsettling. Luckily, when they realized that killing Buffy does them no good, Lucien returns to the past to stop the assassination attempts on her, which leaves her alive in the present.

The main villains themselves are almost comical in their ineptitude. Lucien is a fop who disdains fighting, while Victor and Jason are brutal and wily, but not particularly smart. But it’s their very lack of acumen which makes them all the more dangerous, for who knows how they may disrupt history in ways they couldn’t even dream of, should they not be stopped? And for all of their faults, they are still vampires... merciless, amoral murdering monsters with the power to kill Buffy if she isn’t careful.

This is Alice Henderson’s first full-fledged foray into a standard Buffy novel (after having penned a ‘Stake Your Destiny’ book, NIGHT TERRORS... which she artfully manages to refer to in the course of this story), and if PORTAL THROUGH TIME is any indication, she has a real flair for writing first-rate tales of the Slayer. Here’s hoping she gets the chance for another visit to Sunnydale soon!

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