Slayer Lit Review
How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice to get that which you most desire?
It's not simply a philosophical question... it's also at the heart of much of Chris Golden's latest Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel. And it's a question that, perhaps, could be put to the author as well.
Golden, once one of the most prolific of Buffy novelists, hadn't written the Slayer for several years, admitting to feeling a bit of burnout with the character. But this offer from the editor had to be too good to refuse: To write a new Buffy story set after the end of the television series, and to be able to roam beyond the usual cast of characters and bring in some surprises. For a creator who had spent so much time playing in Joss Whedon's sandbox before, it had to be mighty tempting to be able to build his own sandcastle for a change.
Having accepted the assignment, Golden cooked up an interesting story for the Slayer. Buffy and Xander find themselves in Providence, Rhode Island (not for nothing the hometown and burial place of legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, as we learn ... a fact that‘s worked into the storyline), investigating a rash of "monster" sightings, and stumbling upon something they've never come up against before... the Dark Congress.
In a nutshell, the congress is a gathering of virtually every species of demon that has access to the Earthly plane, where diplomacy... at least temporarily... puts a halt to internecine wars, as well has sparing humans from being killed and/or devoured by the myriad of monstrosities.
For the first time in several millennia, the congress is assembling, and it turns to Buffy to act as its arbiter, enforcing the rules and discipline on the delegates should the need arise.
That concept in and of itself would make for an intriguing story. But, worthy of Hitchcock himself, Golden has made that his MacGuffin. That is to say, the Buffy storyline is the hook that draws you in, but it's not necessarily the real reason the tale is being told.
Something that has bothered Golden (and a great many other fans) is the manner in which the character of Tara Maclay was killed off on the show, and how the characters (and, by extension, the audience) never really had a chance to give her a proper farewell. Unlike most fans, Golden was now in a position to do something about that. And that sub-plot is actually at the core of DARK CONGRESS, giving it both its essence and its resonance.
Through the use of magic and the introduction of a new character, a powerful sorceress named Catherine Cadiere, provides the means of bringing Tara back to the world of the living. Cadiere would like to make Willow her protégé, and as a "gift" to her, she gives Willow the secret to achieve her broken heart's desire.
The author doesn't waste time building up the moment, stretching it out paragraph after paragraph in hyperbolic anticipation of the Great Moment. He cuts right to the chase, allowing the reader to share in Willow's sudden surprise:
"She finished the spell, the words tingling her lips, but she kept her head down, afraid to look up. Afraid even to breath. The voice was half purr, half question, small and tentative. "Willow?" She looked up, eyes widening as she drew a sharp breath. Both hands flew to cover her mouth, shaking, and tears sprang to her eyes, sliding quickly down her cheeks. Tears of repressed anguish, of unimaginable gratitude, and impossible joy. Tara had never looked more beautiful."
Golden returns to Willow and Tara throughout the book, following their reunion, but also giving Tara some time alone to acclimate to her return to the world, taking simple pleasures out of just strolling down the street, feeling the sun on her face, and living. But the best moment might well be when Willow brings her to meet the rest of their friends. They're more than a little concerned about just how Tara has been resurrected, of course; the first time Willow tried to do that, she went mad with grief and power and tried to destroy the whole world. So Buffy and the Scoobies can't help but wonder what sort of dark strings may be attached to Tara's return now.
Indeed, when Giles (unaware of her resurrection) first catches sight of Tara, he angrily turns on Willow with, "What have you done?" He doesn't believe that Tara's return to the living comes without a price; magic always demands a price.
Tara starts to cry, hurt that her friend is rejecting her and angry that he's scolding Willow. Giles turns to her, pain in his own eyes. Opening his arms, he hugs her closely and says softly, "You were the heart of us, and we hardly realized it until you were gone."
And that, in fifteen brief, perfect words, tells the entire story of Tara Maclay, and lets both the characters and the fans have their closure.
In a perfect world, Tara would be back for good. But Twentieth Century Fox put one proviso on the author: he would have to put the genie back into the bottle. In other words, he could bring Tara back, but then he had to kill her off in the end.
To his credit, he doesn't follow Joss Whedon's tactic and have Tara's death be sudden and pointless. Nor, however, does he go for the grand operatic finale, with her valiantly sacrificing herself to save the universe. He presents a very valid, logical reason for why Tara can no longer continue to live, and he lets Tara make the decision to end her own existence for the better good. Tara and Willow have their final goodbye... something denied them the first time Tara died... and that's that. Heart wrenching, yes, but also fulfilling for the reader. We get to say our goodbye, too.
As if that's not enough, Golden packs the book with plenty of other welcome returns, from fellow Slayer Faith to Oz, Willow's former boyfriend. As a werewolf, he's chosen to help represent his species at the Dark Congress, giving the Scoobies an ally among the delegates. He also brings back some popular bad guys from Buffy's past, including the sinister Gentlemen.
Fans of Xander will be happy to see that not only does he still display his puckish humor, but he's also maturing into a highly effective field agent; having no powers of his own beyond a stake in his hand and a witty barb on his tongue, he isn't afraid to take on whatever threat arises.
Chris Golden is an old hand at fantasy story crafting, and he gives us a tale here that's packed to the rafters with great moments, all told with a relative economy of words that keep the story moving along briskly. Even at 270 pages, this is a fast read, with not overlong passages to bog things down.
If there's a downside to this, it means that certain aspects of the story aren't pursued as much as some readers, perhaps, might prefer. I, for one, would have liked to have learned even more about Kandida and Trajabo, the Romeo and Juliet-like demons whose plight spurs this latest gathering of the Congress after centuries. I did like that Golden insinuates that one man's demon can be another man's god; while Kandida and Trajabo are demons, and they have shed human blood over the millennia, they have also played the roles of deities for ancient human societies.
Although the Buffy novels are not canon to the character, Golden does make a point of briefly tying his story into the new canon Season 8 comic book written by Joss Whedon, by making a point of mentioning that Buffy and Giles are setting up their headquarters in Scotland, where they are training many of the activated young Slayers.
In the final analysis, DARK CONGRESS gives us a Buffy for all seasons. There are weighty matters aplenty to be sure, and as the ‘Queen Slayer', she bears a tremendous burden on her slim shoulders. But this story eschews much of the dystopia that seemed to permeate the last few years of the series. There's humor here, and a lightness of spirit that's as welcome as an old friend. And there are new joys to be found as well, such as seeing Buffy and Faith work effectively together both as partners and as friends... although there will always remain the spark of healthy competition between them. In many ways, this is the Buffy we have been waiting for, like an old friend who's been gone far too long.
And she's brought along a lot of other friends we've missed, too.
***** 5 out of 5 stars