According to whom you ask, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is either a campy, inexplicably popular teen drama from the 90s, or it’s some of the best television ever made. Not to say that the show can’t be both, because in fact it is. The karate kicks and monster makeup one step up from Halloween masks were corny even for the time, and I for one would never have expected a show with such a — let’s face it — silly premise to acquire a fan following so strong that it has persisted for over twenty years.
But Buffy was also great television, and that made all the difference. Some of it looks dated today, certainly, when we’re spoiled for well-written prestige shows, but even so there remains something unique and special in the story of a peppy girl and her friends saving the world after school hours. The writing is sharp and the schlocky horror is fun, but where Buffy really shines is in treating its teen characters and their everyday problems with total gravity. However outlandish the situation might have become — and the show was never above poking fun at its own ridiculous stakes — the human vulnerability of Buffy and her schoolmates seethed under the surface, unmocked and unquestioned.
In short, and to wrap up this overlong introduction, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was never about slaying vampires: it was about being young, and prone to mistakes, but trying your damnedest despite the world collapsing around your ears. It was, basically, the perfect fantasy analogue for being a teenager, simultaneously familiar enough to relate to and bizarre enough to laugh at. That was why the show worked, and it’s also why Kiersten White‘s Slayer (2019) mostly works.
But let’s take a step back. Slayer takes place after the last season of the show, and indeed after several further “seasons” of the follow-up graphic novels. Buffy fan though I am, I admit that I haven’t kept up with the comics, so some of the events referenced here were unfamiliar to me. That might have been a problem if we’d dropped back in on the familiar Scooby gang, but fortunately the novel focuses on a new Slayer. Nina and her twin sister Artemis are the descendants of the Watchers, one of those organizations of tweedy magic scholars so common to urban fantasy. Artemis seems to be a model member and the apple of her mother’s eye, while Nina is — apparently — neither of those things. But when the last-ever girl is endowed with the powers of a Slayer, it is Nina who receives them. Suddenly thrust into a more violent world, Nina is forced to question not only her new identity, but also who she can trust.
The family drama is a strength for Slayer, which is fortunate, because that’s the main focus of the narrative. Nina’s struggles with her position stem not so much from being a Slayer — which she actually takes to rather easily, all things considered — but from the tension it causes with her overachieving, overprotective sister and stern, dismissive mother. As in many teen stories, it will be obvious early on to experienced readers that all is not as it seems and the motivations Nina imagines for others are probably the exact opposite of what she envisions, but that’s the nature of this genre — we see the protagonist making her errors, and can only hope she’s strong enough to fix them. White captures the tumult of pride and uncertainty that is the teen experience with admirable aplomb. Nina’s voice is well-realized, and supporting characters like Artemis and Cillian (a townie drawn into the events) are effective.
That said, I do worry that there are too many side characters in the book. White surrounds Nina with other teenagers, probably in an attempt to develop a Scooby gang all her own, but the family stress ends up being so central to the narrative (over and above the actual monster-slaying) that some of the other youths fall by the wayside, popping up only when Nina needs an entourage for one of her missions. A late-book twist involving one of Nina’s friends feels like it’s meant as a big shock, but I honestly couldn’t remember what this person’s relationship to Nina might be, which robbed the scene of a lot of its punch. Then there’s Leo the Love Interest, who… well, he’s fine, really, but he’s another of that species of absurdly devoted YA leading men who probably always has a snazzy coat to drape over his girlfriend if she gets cold, and seems fully okay with dousing himself in kerosene and striking a match if the coat proves insufficient. That too is a Buffy tradition, but it’s one that hasn’t aged particularly well.
The plot is a solid example of the YA whodunit, if a bit chaotic, but the real power of the story is in its themes of acceptance and belonging. Nina feels like an outsider, and her reaction to becoming a Slayer is — aside from understandable anxiety — full of a deftly portrayed hunger for validation, a yearning to at last be part of the equation. The lesson she learns is one that’s all too familiar to those of us who have reached the far side of our adolescences: that no one feels important all the time, that everyone is afraid of where they stand in relation to others, and that sometimes you just have to make a leap of faith.
Overall, Slayer is a solid successor to the Buffy legacy. It could perhaps have been leaner, or a touch less tropey at times, but the warm heart of the franchise remains intact. Recommended for fans of the series, and certainly for fans of young adult fiction.