Slayer Lit

Slayer Lit Review

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MONSTER ISLAND

by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski

reviewed by Shiai

Buffy

Warning: This review contains story spoilers.

Once upon a time, whenever a story called for Buffy the Vampire Slayer to team up with Angel, the vampire with a soul, it was a simple matter to pair them up; basically, he would show up in her hometown, Sunnydale...often in the midst of a battle between the Slayer and some minion of evil...they would trade a few quips as a way of salutation, and that was that.

Now, however, Angel has become a franchise of his own, with his own cast and a blossoming new mythology. So bringing together Buffy's "Scoobies" and Angel's "Fang Gang" requires some logistical groundwork. And the pairing creates some issues that must be dealt with in the course of the story.

MONSTER ISLAND is meant to be the first full-blown team-up between both groups (although the books aren't canon to the respective television series, and later events on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel the Series contradicted a few things found here), and as such, it is a major undertaking. Simply setting up the groundwork to unite them takes 130 pages. And from the start, with Buffy and her friends "intruding" on Angel's turf, there is tension.

'Buffy Summers walked into the hotel like she owned it.

"Cordelia," Buffy said pleasantly. "Hey, Wesley."

None of them seemed motivated to hug.'

Cordelia studied her. Buffy really had changed. She had settled into the power she wielded, and looking at her it was as though the girl she had been had been chipped away from the outside, leaving only Slayer behind."

There's mistrust from the start. Angel and his partners...Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Cordelia Chase, Winifred "Fred" Burkle, Charles Gunn and Lorne the Host...have been protecting Los Angeles from supernatural badness just fine, and they're none too thrilled to be visited by Buffy and her group...Willow Rosenberg, Xander Harris, Tara Maclay and, most distressingly, Spike the vampire. (As for the rest of Buffy's circle, Rupert Giles, her Watcher, has remained behind in Sunnydale to keep an eye on things there and to tend to Buffy's younger sister, Dawn. Anya Jenkins, the former vengeance demon-turned-fiance to Xander, was injured by the villains early in the story, and is recuperating). The Sunnydale contingent is conscious of the difficulty their sudden presence creates, and they want to try to minimize it, but their efforts are hampered by the fact that they're used to being the problem solvers, so inevitably they try to take charge of the situation. But when Buffy starts giving orders, Angel's group quickly makes it clear to her that as far as they're concerned, he's the chief and he'll be calling the shots.

But the threat looming before them is so big, they have no choice but to put their misgivings aside and work together. And in the course of doing so, they learn that they're not so different from one another. Of course, not every coupling brings animosity; I'll delve into that later in the review.

To be blunt, most readers of the Buffy and Angel novels aren't overly concerned with the storylines. Mind you, all readers want a story that's well-conceived and executed, with interesting villains. But I think it's fair to say that virtually every dedicated reader of the series cares most about characterization. The best conceived, best-executed story in the world won't wash if Buffy, Angel and the rest aren't developed properly as characters. To that end, authors Golden and Sniegoski have front-loaded this novel with spot-on characterization, and have essentially kept the plot down to B Movie grade.

In a nutshell: An army of pure blooded demons called (rather ridiculously) the Coalition for Purity, led by a Brachen demon named Axitus, are planning to slaughter all half-breed demons on Earth in order to 'cleanse' their species, and then launch an attack on humanity itself. Their target is the island of Questral, the mystically shrouded haven for a colony of half-breeds who have put their animosities behind them and now live in peace together. Cordelia dubs Questral "Monster Island," and the name sticks.

But General Axitus has his own agenda as well. He is the father of Francis Doyle, a half-breed Brachen who worked alongside Angel when the vampire first came to Los Angeles, and who died a hero saving a group of demons who were seeking sanctuary at Questral. Axitus wants to capture Doyle and use magick to "purify" him, purging his half-human aspect and leaving him fully Brachen, and thus a worthy heir to the General. But when he discovers that Doyle is dead, he decides instead that he will destroy the "filth" who was responsible for Doyle's death...Angel.

And that's about it. The pureblooded demons are often referred to as Nazis, and the authors treat them as such. Axitus has no great depth...he's a pompous homicidal martinet. His lieutenants, appropriately, have sinister schemes of their own. We are meant to hate and despise these villains, and we do. There's nothing redeeming about them or noble about their mission. They are, in short, monsters.

And damned effective monsters, given how many times they stymie and checkmate the heroes. Indeed, at one point, a captured Buffy and Angel would be as good as dead if Axitus didn't want to keep them alive to suffer. But as any smart warlord will tell you, it doesn't matter how many battles you lose, just so long as you win the war. The heroes, unable to stop the villains in their preparations for war, realize it must all come down to a final all-out battle on Questral, army versus army, good versus evil.

Since we can be reasonably sure of the ultimate outcome. Sniegoski and Golden have to keep our interest riveted on the story by the means in which they arrive to that finish. The tale really takes off in the last third of the book, when the contingent of Cordelia, Lorne, Willow, Xander and Spike journey to Questral to warn the inhabitants of the threat headed to their shores, and to help organize them into a defensive force. But for all of their efforts to live in peace with one another, the demons of Monster Island are hardly pacifists...they don't like humans, and they absolutely hate vampires, so the heroes quickly find themselves sentenced to death for daring to set foot on Questral. The gang manage to postpone their executions by presenting their case. There are no stirring speeches made, no appeals to nobility. The bare facts are laid on the line: the demons of Questral will be slaughtered unless they work with the humans to protect themselves from the Coalition.

Ultimately, the half-breeds realize their best interests are served by allying themselves with the intruders, and when the Coalition's transport ship pierces through the fog, an army stands on the beach to meet it. What ensues is a bloody, brutal battle that costs both sides dearly. Both nobility and treachery are found in equal measures. Charcters we have come to care about suffer.

But as good as the battle sequence is, it's the characterizations which make MONSTER ISLAND work as well as it does. The spotlight shines on just about everyone, but several secondary characters truly get to glow in this one:

  • Cordelia Chase - Once the vapid, snobbish Queen of Sunnydale High, she has matured during her time working with Angel Investigations into a woman of very capable means. She's not afraid to bluntly speak her mind, nor to take up arms against hideous nightmare creatures. And she's at her best when she pulls rank on Questral as a Princess of Pylea in order to gain an audience with the island's ruling body, and she makes the case for working with the humans.
  • Tara Maclay - The shy, caring Wiccan was often shunted into the background on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but here she really gets to step up and prove her worth, and not only as a witch. Separated from her lover, Willow, for much of the story, she strikes up an instant bond of friendship with the equally demure Fred, and it's quite funny seeing them communicate in odd half-sentences that the other completely understands, even if no one else does. She also gets to whip out some serious magick, particularly when she uses a Spell of Mistrust to cause the demons holding Buffy, Angel and Gunn hostage to savagely turn on each other. Unfortunately, the spell also affects other supernatural beings, and only the chains holding them fast keep an enraged Slayer and ensouled vampire from killing one another. Even Tara is affected, and she has to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by fury until she can lift the spell (and I find the very concept of gentle Tara going into a berserker's rage amusing beyond words).
  • Lorne - The dapper Host, dressed as if he had stepped out of a Rat Pack movie, doesn't just toss off hipster quips in this one. His ability to read a person's soul when they are singing plays an important role early in the book, and later on he serves as translator on Questral, and in the course of doing so, we get some insights into this refugee from a demonic realm who has made a place for himself in a world that thinks of him as a monster that make him even more likable as a character, if that's even possible.
  • Spike - Love him or hate him, Spike the vampire has gone from Big Bad to key player in Buffy's adventures. He still has his nasty tendencies here, but the chip in his head prevents him from hurting humans. Buffy brings him along because, as she argues, they need his muscle, but as fans know, the two of them also harbor deep, if conflicting affections for one another. Angel, quite obviously, is not happy to see Spike in LA, and Gunn, in particular, is ready and willing to plunge a stake through the vampire's heart. Indeed, Buffy and Gunn nearly come to blows over it. But while Spike breezily admits that if it weren't for the chip, he'd slaughter the lot of them, he proves himself to be an unselfish hero a couple of times...and grumbles when he realizes someone else has witnessed it, thus tarnishing his bad boy rep.
  • Xander Harris - The human of the group, the Scooby who isn't a Slayer, a Watcher, a witch, a demon, a werewolf or a vampire. It might seem as if Xander doesn't do much in this story but crack sarcastic jokes at all the wrong moments, but if you pay attention, you realize he's a lot more involved in the scheme of things than it appears, if only to be a loyal pillar of strength just when it's needed most. And on Questral, he gets to put his magickal memories of being a commando to work by helping to organize the island's defenses.

Perhaps surprisingly, we don't get such insights into Buffy and Angel. Well, not so surprising, really...any writer is going to be rigidly confined by what they can do with these two in any story, so Golden and Sniegoski simply let them hold center stage much of the time, but they make sure to put other, more flexible characters on the stage with them.

MONSTER ISLAND is set early in Season Six of BtVS and Season Three of AtS. Buffy is still shell-shocked from having died and been brought back to life, but that isn't dwelled upon too much. Over on the Angel side of things, Fred is still getting adjusted to Earth life again after having been trapped in Pylea for five years.

The authors do incorporate a bit of foreshadowing, particularly with events destined to play out on BtVS. Giles opts to remain behind in Sunnydale, ostensibly to guard the Hellmouth, but also because he's harboring thoughts that Buffy is relying too much on him, and that she needs to stand on her own now. But Sniegoski and Golden really draw attention to looming events in the Willow and Tara relationship. When Lorne has them sing at his club, Caritas (Willow's severe reluctance and Tara's happy agreement to sing is an inside joke with actresses Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson), he "reads" them and is quite literally bowled over by the power of the love between them. But he's also disturbed by the intensity of Willow's feelings, hinting that, should things ever take a bad turn between the Wiccans, Willow might do something unfortunate. Later on in the story, Tara meets Elijah Carnegie, a character introduced by Christopher Golden in an earlier Angel story, and she learns for the first time about magickal addiction, and starts to recognize a few of the warning signs in Willow. We even catch a tiny glimpse of what will become "Dark Willow" during the battle on Questral, when she allows her anger to rise up. All of this would manifest itself in the coming series season.

Bringing Carnegie into the story (and he eventually plays a pivotal role) is just one of the nods to past continuity which the authors employ. They name drop various past characters, and fans will get a kick out of the Coalition's secret LA headquarters: the Burbank warehouse soundstage of a certain unnamed 'cult' television show (which is presumably on hiatus during this tale), with Axitus using as his quarters the rather opulent private trailer of the show's female star. It just so happens that BtVS was filmed in a Burbank warehouse. And for AtS mavens, Harry, Doyle's ex-wife, even crops up!

The underlying theme throughout this book is the responsibility of fatherhood. Most of the heroes have parental issues that haunt them. But in many instances, they have found ways to resolve them. Buffy has replaced her absent father with her Watcher, Giles, who is much more caring and attentive. Angel hated his father (and indeed, during his evil Angelus days, took great pleasure in killing dear old Dad), but he now looks to Elijah as a surrogate mentor. Tara has fled the psychological burden of her own twisted family through her relationship with Willow. Cordy has dealt with the shame of her father's personal failings by developing her own maternal instincts towards her friends. Wes has overcome the burden of being a failure in his father's eyes by finally being his own man. And Gunn gets to play the role of father literally, by watching out for Calvin, a fifteen year old orphan from his 'hood. Xander, sadly, still fears that he will turn into his own father, and the thought pains him greatly.

If there's a disappointment with MONSTER ISLAND, it's perhaps that for as many times as his name is invoked, Doyle doesn't really figure into the story. His friends don't reminisce about him, and thus the readers don't get to know much of anything about him. A flashback scene with Doyle...maybe a recounting of his death, which of course plays into this story...would have been nice.

Despite this, MONSTER ISLAND remains one of the best of the Buffy and Angel novels. Small wonder that Simon & Schuster released it first in a hardback edition, as it definitely qualifies as a solid work of fantasy writing. Chris Golden and Tom Sniegoski have managed to give readers the Buffy and Angel they want, and that makes this island most worthy of a visit.

NOTE: For this review, I read the first edition paperback, in which there is a glaring technical error. Simply put, there is no Page 366...the book simply goes from 365 to 367. Also, a few pages later, several paragraphs are repeated. To the best of my knowledge, these errors are not found in the hardcover edition. And I fully expect the publisher to correct these errors in future paperback editions.

***** 5 out of 5 Stars