Slayer by Kiersten White
Published January 8, 2019
I belong to a small subset of older millennials who grew up on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy was the first non-animated show that I asked my parents if I could watch, the first fandom for which I read fanfiction, and the first show that had me scrolling through reaction message boards and peeking at spoilers. I was twelve when I started watching Buffy, beginning with season three and backtracking over the summer to catch up on what I’d missed, so this show, more than any other, has had a profound influence on me. I say this so you can understand the depth of my feelings for the Buffyverse. As both a Buffy fanatic and someone who adored Kiersten White’s Conquerors’ Saga, Slayer should have been Christmas and my birthday and an all-inclusive vacation all rolled up into one shiny book-shaped package. Instead it was an underwhelming and, quite frankly, unnecessary read.
As far as I’m concerned, the most important part of any property set in the Buffyverse should be the characters. The realistic pop-culture filled dialogue, the paralleling of teenage problems that feel like the end of the world when you’re living them to dealing with the actual end of the world, and the depth of the relationships (be they parental, sibling, platonic, or romantic) have always been at the heart of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the multi-faceted, flawed, but trying their best characters who ground a show about high-school/college students fighting evil. I had high hopes that White’s take would give us a slayer for a new generation. Perhaps she would disrupt the problematic white feminism of the original show by giving us a Black slayer dealing with race relations in America, an undocumented or refugee slayer making the world safer even as it underestimates her. How about a Gen Z slayer frustrated with the world she’s been left and dealing with the consequences of instability and working multiple jobs while slaying and being called lazy by boomers? Instead we get Nina, a timid redheaded twin with abandonment issues.
I wanted to warm to Nina, but she’s such an internal, self-doubting character that I had trouble connecting with her. The supporting characters felt similarly under-developed, including the obligatory YA love interest, Nina’s protective, stronger, better faster twin sister Artemis, and never going to win parent-of-the-year mother, Helen. I liked what little we got of Rhys, but Nina spends so much of her time keeping secrets from those she loves that we never get to see her bond with her friends and I had trouble differentiating between the supporting characters. I felt so strongly about all of White’s characters in the Conquerors’ Saga that I expected more from the author when it came to crafting a new chapter in buffyverse mythology.
Although initially jarring, I did like Slayer presents the Watchers’ side of the story. While the show, and spin-off comics, have generally followed Buffy Summers herself, Slayer takes us inside what’s left of the Watchers’ Council (after their headquarters exploded in season seven of the show). There’s a lot of Buffy bashing, and while it’s interesting at first to hear from such a different point-of-view, it quickly grows tiresome, coming across a lot like the season seven scene where Buffy is driven out of her own house by her ungrateful friends. There are plenty of Easter eggs here for fans of the show though, with surnames like Zabuto, Wyndam-Pryce, Weatherby, Post, and Jamison-Smythe popping up early in the book.
I also had trouble figuring out the timeline at first since I could never get into the (technically canonical) season eight and onwards Buffy comics and haven’t been following their events. Basically what you need to know is that Buffy destroyed something called the Seed of Wonder which turned off all magic, ended the slayer line, and made her a pariah among former witches and slayers alike.
There were things I liked. The shared slayer dreamspace is a pretty fascinating idea and I loved the encounters that Nina had with Faith and, most of all, with Buffy herself. I also loved the message this book sends about free will and choice even when you’re born into something or tradition places a set of expectations on you. I found Nina’s character development far too slow for me to fall in love with her, yet I did ultimately root for her and her friends. There’s the potential (yep – I went there) for White to make something interesting out of this planned series, and I love Buffy enough that I’ll probably read the next entry in this series at some point in time, but it’s not something I’ll be running to the bookstore for – and that’s bitterly disappointing.