Slayer Lit Review
by Scott Ciencin
reviewed by Shiai
This review reveals minor story elements.
**** Four Stars out of Five
Simon & Schuster, which publishes the Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels, divides the works into two classes. Its primary thrust has always been in the so-called Young Adult paperback marketplace. YA books, as the name implies, are teen-friendly; they don't contain adult language or sexual situations (other than by vague implication); violence, while not minimized (these are books about a girl slaying monsters, after all) is often on a somewhat early prime time TV level (it's not unusual for villains to flee for their lives after a fight with Buffy, rather than meeting their maker); and the page count tends to clock in at around the 210 to 270 range. The Adult books, by contrast, have somewhat more explicit scenarios (in terms of violence, not necessarily sexually). And story lengths tend to run around a quarter to a third longer than the YA works.
I say all of this because I want to stress that while Young Adult books are accessible to teenagers, the books themselves are not necessarily written for teens. Some good writers...and the Buffy books have enjoyed some excellent, award winning fantasy authors helming them...have done some amazing things with the YA tales. These stories can be enjoyed by adults, and they ought to be. There's no shame in browsing through the Youth section of your favorite bookseller to find some of these, so don't deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading the YA Buffy adventure.
That said, "Sweet Sixteen" by Scott Ciencin is probably not the best book to introduce yourself to the Buffyverse. Mind you, it's not because it's a poor story...in fact, it's a very enjoyable book, with an interesting plot and some intriguing new characters. But two factors would make it a difficult jumping on point for newcomers: First, unless the reader is already well-versed in who all of the major characters from the show are, it'll be hard keeping track of just who all of these people are. And secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Buffy isn't really the star of this particular novel.
While Simon & Schuster publishes the Buffy books, the character is owned and controlled by Twentieth Century-Fox and Mutant Enemy Productions, and these owners, seeking to protect their franchise, have enacted an occasionally Byzantine maze of guidelines for authors to adhere to...what can and cannot be done, which characters can and cannot be used, and under which circumstances, what major events from the weekly television series must go unmentioned, and which ones must be underscored. It must be maddening at times to be a Buffy novel writer!
So, Ciencin has apparently decided to rather artfully sidestep many of these restrictions by essentially reducing Buffy to the role of supporting player in her own book. Now, if you're going to do that, you'd better have someone else to step into the spotlight who's interesting and capable.
And the author gives us just such a character in Arianna DuPrey, an original invention. She's a classmate of Dawn Summers, and she just happens to suddenly develop some Slayer-like abilities, including superstrength, which makes her of prime interest to Buffy and the Scooby Gang. Buffy (and the readers) first meets Arianna late one evening in a convenience store; Buffy has dropped in to pick up a couple of groceries after finishing her patrol of Sunnydale, hunting for vampires or any other nasty things which the Hellmouth might have spat out. And it just so happens that Buffy stumbles across three none-too-bright demons who are also doing some shopping (the store's teenaged clerk being perpetually oblivious to everything around him, and thus not noticing that none of his patrons are entirely *normal*). The prerequisite fight follows, but Ciencin does something interesting, in that first he makes us privy to Buffy's thoughts as she formulates a battle plan, mentally absorbing the store and anything in it that can be used as a weapon, either in her hands or against her. We're so used to Buffy springing into action, punching and staking without seemingly thinking first, it's a genuine pleasure to get a glimpse into her thought process, and to come to understand a bit better just why she is so formidable a combatant.
When one of the demons turns on Arianna, who's also in the store, everybody...particularly Arianna herself...is shocked when she kills him with her bare hands. After the battle is over, Buffy tries to talk to Arianna, but the frightened girl runs out of the store and eludes the Slayer in the dark of night.
So imagine Buffy's surprise when she comes home a few nights later and discovers Arianna on her sofa, watching videos with Dawn! From this point on, the focus of the book shifts to Arianna, and we learn that she's much more than just a teenager with superpowers. Ciencin takes us into the world of this girl, and it's not a happy one. She lives in what the small town of Sunnydale would consider the wrong side of its tracks, with a mother who is nothing short of a harpy, blaming her daughter for all of her own failings and withholding even the slightest shard of affection for her child. She never knew who her father was.
Arianna has grown up gawky and shy, the target of bullies. Her only refuge has been works of fantasy fiction, tales of warrior kings battling dragons, and princesses reigning in magnificent crystal cities.
The author, however, very wisely never makes Arianna a pathetic creature. She is the victim of circumstances, some of her own making, but most beyond her control. She is a good person at heart, and all she needs to begin to realize her potential is the trust of a friend and a chance to prove herself. Meeting Dawn provides the former, and the unexpected onset of her powers grants the latter.
Testing her abilities, Buffy learns that Arianna is not a Slayer. Although she possesses strength and speed to rival Buffy, she does not possess the innate agility or combat abilities of a Chosen One. What she does have is a healing factor that is nearly instantaneous, and a very unique power, the ability to "read" a person by their body language, and in so doing not only predict that they will do physically, but also catch telling glimpses of their thoughts and emotions. Using this power, she can literally not only tell if a person is lying, but in one instance, she discovers that one of her tormentors at school has been enjoying a dalliance with the boyfriend of one of her best friends, a discovery which Arianna is happy to share with the student body.
Taken under the wing of Buffy, Arianna is happy to have found a place of belonging at last. Dawn is happy too...and not only because she has a new friend. She also rather craftily sees Arianna as her ticket to becoming a full-fledged member of the Scooby Gang. And while Dawn feels some remorse at using her friend this way, she rationalizes her little deception as being harmless. And she is wrong, as later events will reveal.
Enter next Aryan's long-lost father, Aurek Kiritan...who turns out to be a minor demon lord. Discovering the existence of his daughter with the blossoming of her heritage, he conspires to win her trust and use her as his means of elevating himself to a position of absolute power. For Arianna isn't simply a demon/human hybrid with enhanced physical abilities, she is a candidate to become a celestial being known as the Reaver.
Buffy is unaware of Aurek and his interest in Arianna. Her own interest is altruistic, but in a rather selfish way, if that makes any sense. Buffy looks at Arianna and sees herself; like Arianna, Buffy was 15 and perfectly normal when she suddenly found herself possessing mysterious powers and was entrusted with an ancient duty. And as Buffy has never quite gotten over her resentment of being made the Chosen One, she now sees Arianna as her chance to stop history from repeating itself. She wants to train the youngster, but only so that Arianna will know how to avoid trouble, and go on to live a normal, monster-free life. A perceptive Giles grasps what Buffy's motives are, and he asks her if she's being fair to Arianna by making such a decision for her, but Buffy is adamant that she's doing the right thing. But as Arianna herself later tells Buffy, the difference between the two of them is that for Buffy, being "normal" meant being the most popular girl in school, while for Arianna, it means being a nobody. Her powers make her a somebody, at least in her own mind, and she rejects Buffy's advice to essentially forget she even has them. Everything comes to a climax at Aryan's sweet sixteen party at the Bronze.
I won't go any further into the plot for fear of giving away some crucial elements, except to say that Ciencin has crafted a particularly complex and enjoyable tapestry around the figure of Arianna DuPrey. He also occasionally takes the spotlight off of her and returns it to Buffy in a funny little subplot; she is being hunted and attacked...but not seriously injured...by various demons. It turns out she's the subject of a demonic version of the X Games, with the objecting being to "tag" the Slayer and to escape with your head still on your shoulders. Paying a visit to Willy's Alibi Room for information, Buffy is none too pleased to discover that the attacks have been filmed, and they're being shown to the crowd.
There isn't much to do for the rest of the Scooby Gang in this one, with all of them basically getting a few lines, and not much more than that. Ciencin does throw in some nice nods to continuity, including having Spike perform what he calls "the Tara bit." Spike has a computer chip in his brain that prevents him from harming any living being without suffering excruciating pain, although he can have at it with demons to his dead heart's content. In one episode of the series, Spike gave Tara a little pop on the nose to determine if there was any demon in her, and he does the same trick with Arianna. And there's also a little wink to the fans when the author has Dawn and Arianna discussing the "hottie" from an obscure horror film called "Psycho Beach Party"; the hottie in question just happened to be played by Nicholas Brendon, AKA Xander.
All told, "Sweet Sixteen" is a fun, engrossing, enjoyable read. And it goes a long way towards demonstrating that the Young Adult Buffy books aren't just for kids.