Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Review

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THE DEATHLESS

by Keith R.A. DeCandido

Deathless

Reviewed by Shiai

It takes talent to be able to write a book featuring well-established (and much beloved) television characters, and to be able to present those characters in ways that are true to who and what they have already been established as.

It takes talent and audacity to write a story specifically designed to fit neatly and seamlessly between two well-known episodes of the TV show.

In The Deathless, author Keith R.A. DeCandido proves he has talent and audacity to spare.

The episodes which this tale is meant to slide between are “The Zeppo” and “Bad Girls” from the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy and Faith, the other vampire slayer, are on cemetery patrol one night, looking for trouble but finding little. They’re both still nursing injuries suffered from their recent battle (in “The Zeppo”) with the Sisterhood of Jhe, and between their boredom, their nagging aches, and the wary competitive nature between them, the Chosen Two are starting to bicker with each other. That’s interrupted by the arrival of a newly-sired vampire, Katherine Toomajian. What makes her different from most other vamps is that she intentionally had herself killed and sired to unlife, with the intent on fighting and destroying the Slayers. But while Katherine knew a great deal about Buffy and Faith, she had also greatly overestimated the vampiric powers she would receive; while they are formidable, they are barely a match against one slayer. Facing two of them, the late Ms. Toomajian doesn’t enjoy very healthy odds.

But with that minor threat dealt with, the Chosen Two are immediately introduced to something that will prove to be a whole lot more formidable than an overconfident vampire.

Plunging into Russian folklore, DeCandido has introduced into the Buffyverse the Baba Yaga, the immortal sorceress who lives in a hut held aloft upon giant chicken legs(!). Now residing in Sunnydale under the name Valery Kochevikov, Baba Yaga uses glamour magick to make her house look like any other suburban split-level home in the neighborhood. But just because she’s hiding in plain sight doesn’t mean she isn’t pursuing her own mystic agenda.

But whatever that unexplained agenda may ultimately be, it is put aside when a great threat arises that force her and Buffy to become reluctant allies. Sinister plans are afoot to restore Koschei the Deathless to life, and unleash the evil sorcerer upon the world again. Through trickery, Baba Yaga was able to kill Koschei centuries ago, but she knows she won’t be able to kill him again now. So, she needs Buffy and her friends to help her thwart the resurrection spell before it is completed…but first they have to find out when and where it is, and how it will be done.

Parallel to this is a subplot about ring day at Sunnydale High School, when the seniors who purchased their rings receive them. Xander has been working part-time for his uncle to earn enough money to buy a ring, deciding that having one would give him ‘cool cache’ at last. Willow is also getting one, not out of any great motivating school spirit, but because she realizes the silver ring would help her in her magickal spell casting. Buffy is a bit envious of them, but she can’t afford her own ring because her Mom is still paying to repair the damage to their house following the zombie attack in the “Dead Man’s Party” episode earlier in the season (just under four months previous from the events in this book).

Of course, the school rings (and the students who wear them) intertwine with the Koschei storyline, dramatically upping the ante for Buffy and her friends to stop the resurrection and save many lives.

The alliance between Buffy and Baba Yaga is filled with tension and mistrust on the Slayer’s part. The undying sorceress is hardly altruistic, and she very quickly earns the enmity of the entire Scooby gang. Unfortunately, thanks to a protective spell woven by Baba Yaga, Buffy and Faith are unable to physically attack her, so there isn’t much they can do but go along with her plan…even when that plan includes dragooning a reluctant Willow into being her temporary apprentice.

DeCandido incorporates much of the established lore of both Baba Yaga and Koschei into his story, but he also tweaks it by adding a new character to the mythology, Bulat the Brave, the Russian whom Baba Yaga had duped hundreds of years before into learning the secret of Koschei’s immortality and using it to kill him. In so doing, Bulat himself became immortal, and has wandered the world every since…although he hasn’t become terribly wiser during his long life. Bulat’s solution to most any problem is either using his fists or his sword. He’s in Sunnydale, he reveals, both to help stop Koschei’s resurrection, but also to keep a close eye on Baba Yaga, whom he doesn’t trust one bit…and not without good reason.

Along the way, the story is peppered with quick appearances from many established Sunnydale residents: Willy the Snitch, Harmony Kendall, Jonathan Levinson, Principle Snyder, even Michael Czajak, the Goth dabbler in magick from the “Gingerbread“ episode. Angel is there too, but because Baba Yaga has control over dead things through her necromantic magick, it’s decided that he should steer clear of this adventure so as to avoid being controlled by the sorceress. And he does…for a little while, at least.

As I had mentioned, the author has crafted this tale to slip comfortably between two established episodes. As such, DeCandido is careful not to tip any hands and reveal anything that is to unfold in episodes to come (although it‘s all well known to fans now). Thus, the Faith we see here gives no indication of her eventual turn toward evil. She has her demons, sure (and in making us privy to a few of Faith’s thoughts, the author pays homage to Robert Joseph Levy’s recent Faith-centric novel, Go Ask Malice), but the Faith we meet here is still a trustworthy partner to Buffy.

(And speaking of allusions to other works, DeCandido also incorporates an element from one of Peter David’s Spike comic book stories. Although Spike himself does not appear in The Deathless, Angel recalls him while ruminating on his long life, and invokes the name which David bestowed upon him in the comic: William Pratt. This is the first time the name has been used in any of the novels.)

Humor is rife throughout, although thankfully the bad puns are kept to a minimum. The rest of the major characters are all handled spot-on by the writer, and he seems to have a bit of an affinity for Xander (although Xander is absent a fair amount of time during this story). At one point, missing all memory for the last 12 hours, Xander instantly concludes that he’s been the victim…once again…of magickal shenanigans: Great. I got possessed. Again.

It always has to be me, doesn’t it? I’m the one who gets seduced by the praying mantis, I fall for the killer mummy girl, I get possessed by the hyena spirit, I fall for the BGOC -- which in this case stands for Bitch Girl on Campus -- I get recruited by the zombie gang from hell. Why is it always me?

Then, he remembered that he’d also saved Buffy’s life and gotten to have sex with Faith. So it’s not all bad.

Interestingly, The Deathless is a little looser with adult language and situations than the usual Young Adult book. Profanity is limited to the likes of bitch, ass and damn…mild stuff in everyday life, but at one time anathema to YA fare. More surprising is the fact that DeCandido writes rather openly about sex, such as when Faith internally muses on her enjoyment of coitus, and how guys like Xander think it means something more to her than just having fun, burning off excess energy and reveling in her power…although she did appreciate the fact that Xander didn’t mind her being on top. Considerably more shocking for a young adult novel is that DeCandido openly mentions a gay sexual relationship between one of the characters and someone from their past. Considering that in earlier Buffy YA books, the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara was tiptoed around so awkwardly, the reader was hard-pressed to realize from the text they were anything more than chaste acquaintances, this development is a welcome one. I had the opportunity to ask Keith about this, and he said that he wrote some of this stuff fully expecting the publisher to tone it down, but instead they approved it, to his happy surprise.

If there’s a drawback for me to this book, it’s that I would have liked to have seen more of Baba Yaga. I think she would make for an interesting nemesis in some future tale.

There’s been something of a Buffy renaissance of late, what with some excellent tie-in novels, and of course Joss Whedon’s BtVS comic book. And Keith R.A. DeCandido continues this trend of excellent writing with this book.

**** 4 out of 5 Stars