Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Review

heading

BOOK OF THE DEAD

by Ashley McConnell

Ashley McConnell

Reviewed by Paxomen

Warning: This review contains story spoilers.

BACKGROUND

Back in the hot summer of 2004, it's fair to say there were a good few people who questioned the decision by the Warner Brother Network to cancel Angel. After all, while the budget for its fifth season had been cut relative to previous years, great writing, the absence of the parent show on the air, and the introduction of Spike as a series regular had helped raise the ratings. Around this time the publisher, Simon and Schuster, also had to consider whether they should pay to extend their license to publish more Angel novels. Unhappy with the sales -- which had never reached the same level of success as the parent series tie-ins -- S&S opted to close down future Angel novels.

BOOK OF THE DEAD was the penultimate novel, first released two months after the Angel finale aired. It's sad to say that there was not much fanfare on the internet; no one camped outside S&S with placards. It's possible the bulk of Buffyverse fans did not even notice. This is a shame, because writers like Mariotte and McConnell were showing what could be done with licensed fiction. In my humble opinion "Book of the Dead" represents one of the very best Buffyverse novels, and is deserving of mention alongside works by Christopher Golden. Creatively at least, the line did not fade away.

Although McConnell's work was published post-series, the story is set during the fourth season of Angel. It clearly takes place after Buffy episode "Never Leave Me" as the destruction of the Council Headquarters is important to several characters. Placing it somewhere specifically alongside Angel episodes is more difficult. The best way to accept the novel is to assume that it takes place just before "Apocalypse Nowish" but counter to canon: Connor has gone travelling for a few days, and Wesley has already parted ways with Lilah.

THE STORY

The story begins with troubled youth Emilio, and the focus stays on him for the first two chapters. Emilio is unable to fit in at school. He is cruelly mocked by other students and even by the teachers. As the popular girls compare him to Rain Man and the class jock pushes him against the locker we are at first invited to sympathise with the character...but shades of grey are gradually introduced.

Meanwhile an old classmate of Wesley's shows up in L.A.,: Adrian O'Flaherty. This is strange, because neither man got on very well with each other. O'Flaherty explains that his focus has drifted since the Council was destroyed, and that he is visiting for a book auction in L.A., but nonetheless why would he track down Wesley? Has he really traveled overseas just for an auction? The character is an enigma, but his motivations are discovered eventually.

Wesley introduces O'Flaherty to Angel, largely just to give O'Flaherty a scare, and then both men attend the auction. Hidden away in one of the boxes lies the Red Compendium, perhaps the most powerful spellbook in the world, it contains many of the most dangerous magics. However Wolfram and Hart also want the book. Wesley's decision to pursue the book results in his former colleagues at Angel Investigations becoming entangled in the proceedings. I won't spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book but will say that the way in which knowledge is used and abused in connection with the Red Compendium has thematic continuity with the moment when Willow literally absorbs dark magicks.

MY THOUGHTS

It was an unusual choice for McConnell to choose to place so much emphasis at the start of the novel on an original character, but with hindsight it appears the writer is using Emilio to shadow past development of the real spotlight for his story, Wesley Wyndam-Pryce. Both Emilio and Wesley have serious confidence issues relating to their relationships with their respective fathers. Both become alienated from those around them and instead seek comfort in the written word. The difference is that the young Wesley worked hard to become a Watcher and do good, whilst Emilio wants to learn spells for attention and to harm those who wrong him.

The comparison becomes more relevant because we see how Wesley developed as a young man in flashbacks highlighting his days as Head Boy at the Watcher Academy. Such flashbacks are sprinkled throughout the book. They center around a short period, leading up to and during a brutal Practical Examination. The characterization is subtle but has real depth. We can see how will later makes the decisions we already know that he will make. His strengths and weaknesses as a man are informed by his youth. They reveal that more than anything Wesley wants the respect of his father, and he hopes he can achieve this by building up knowledge in order to become an Active Watcher:

"He moved back to his own private room, privilege of being Head Boy. He didn't require the camaraderie of those cretins. He could absorb himself in the minutiae of the arcane instead, and build up walls of thick, comforting volumes, a veritable fortress of knowledge not one of them could challenge. He might not be well-liked, but he was better organized for Examinations than any of them." (Book of the Dead, page 46)

Interestingly many characters in this story equate books with power and this also brings attention to a less pleasant side to Wesley, his confidence in his own knowledge at the Academy led to a superiority complex which arguably never completely disappeared. When he believes he is working for the greater good, he will do whatever he thinks necessary with or without the support of his associates. To some extent this is still true of the Wesley of Season 4, he is unwilling to own up to any wrong on his part in kidnapping Connor with the knowledge he had, and instead blames the others for abandoning him during a hard time.

Early on in the novel Wesley is patrolling the sewer tunnels for evil, and ends up saving Fred and Gunn from a Tovateir demon, but the Watcher can't bring himself to engage in conversation with them. He almost silently walks away. When he talks to Angel he tellingly has to scratch at a "phantom itch" by the scar on his neck - he is still bitter about the way events unfolded. Although there is tension between Wesley and Angel, the vampire is willing to move past their differences. It is only with Angel's request that Wesley assist them with some healing spells that Wes is still involved with Angel Investigations at all. He describes the Hyperion as the office where he "used to work." Fred notes his scar is slowly fading and presumably the conflicts that it represents are gradually fading as well.

However the scenes between Wes and the rest of Angel Investigations are few and far between, little attention is placed with Angel, Gunn, Fred and Lorne. Instead McConnell focuses on Wesley, and also draws on recurring players such as Lilah Morgan and Rutherford Sirk (the Watcher from "Home" and "Destiny") as well as a handful of original characters. The characterization throughout is outstanding - in particular McConnell has a deep understanding of Wesley, and the book is completely geared around him even when he's not on-page. This means the story is dealing especially well with themes commonly associated with the fallen Watcher such as fragmented masculinity, and loneliness. Most of the central characters in the story such as Wesley, Emilio, O'Flaherty, Cawber and Sirk have a love of the written word. At first sight it appears that McConnell is writing a love letter to books and booksmarts, but scratch the surface of the novel and you can see that Wesley has paid a price for his knowledge.

BOOK OF THE DEAD is a story that serves the medium - it works so well as a novel because so many of the characters themselves are fixated by books. It works well without trying to replicate the formula the television show used. It is that rarity from the Buffyverse book lines, it has excellent characterization, and an interesting and well-executed plot which rewards a second reading.

***** 5 out of 5 Stars

See more of Paxomen's writing on Mr Wyndam-Pryce at the article: here