In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.
—Slayer by Kiersten White
Remember Buffy The Vampire Slayer? I mean, what kind of ridiculous question is that of course you remember Buffy—the television show that gave us the awesome feminist badass cheerleader vampire and demon killer, launched Sarah Michelle Gellar and Joss Whedon’s careers, and is dearly beloved by fans of all ages and levels of nerddom.
Did you also watch the original Buffy The Vampire Slayer movie? Starring Kristy Swanson and Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer and Luke Perry? I loved that movie when I was a little kid, and always, always associate Swanson’s Buffy as my default Buffy. (Of course I love real!Buffy, but you can’t change your first exposure to such things.) While the television series is infinitely more complex and darker than the motion picture, one thing I always missed (and wondered about) in the Buffyverse was her LA origin story—and her relationship with her first Watcher, Merrick Jamison-Smythe (aka Donald Sutherland in the film). Enter Kiersten White’s Slayer: the first book in a new spinoff series, set in the Buffyverse and following the children Merrick Jamison-Smythe, and the community of Watchers who train just as hard—in fact, harder—than Slayers.
Buffy Summers has broken the world and killed all magic after destroying the Seed of Wonder in order to save the universe (again). In so doing, she has found a way to prevent any hellmouths from opening, stranding any vampires and demons on Earth—but also that the powers of the Watchers have been nullified, and their society almost completely wiped out in the aftermath. Most importantly, Buffy’s actions also meant that every potential Slayer’s powers were awakened at once, so that the world now doesn’t only have one Slayer, but thousands… and they are the last of their kind. Without magic, there will be no more Slayers, no more Watchers. Ever.
Because of all of this—and because of the death of her father, who was Buffy’s first Watcher—Athena “Nina” Jamison-Smythe hates Buffy, hates Slayers, and wants nothing to do with them. Instead, the Jamison-Smythe women—Nina, her twin sister Artemis, and their mother Helen—focus on what they can control: training, studying, and doing whatever they can to preserve the Watchers. For Artemis, this means intensive combat and strategy training, in addition to advanced classes on lore and inner circle Watcher-candidate stuff. For Nina, however, it means medic classes and basically nothing important—everyone knows that Artemis is the powerful twin, and Nina…well, Nina has always been seen as weaker, lesser, and forbidden from undergoing any true Watcher training by her mother. Nina has lived with the heartbreaking truth that her mother would always choose Artemis over Nina—when the girls were very small and a magical fire targeted their home, their mother chose to save Artemis and left Nina behind to burn.
Mommy issues aside, Nina has made peace with her lot with the Watchers. Sort of. And if nothing else, she loves her sister Artemis dearly, and the two always look out for each other—even if it usually is kick-ass Artemis who watches Nina’s back. But when a hellhound attacks and it is Nina who is able to stop it with her bare hands, it takes everyone by surprise. It turns out that Nina has always been a Potential Slayer and now is the very last Slayer—a Slayer who was raised as a Watcher. And now, as a Slayer, Nina has a job to do—figure out who is killing Slayers, break up a demon-smuggling-fight-ring, deal with mired-in-their-old-ways rigidity (and, frankly, stupidity) of the Watchers, and, oh yeah, repair her relationship with her sister while saving the world.
I am an unabashed Kiersten White fangirl—her Saga of the Conqueror trilogy is one of my favorites of all time—so when I learned that she would be writing a spinoff series in the Buffyverse, I was practically salivating. Reading Slayer is like finding an old, beloved sweater at the back of your closet; you forgot that you had it but now can’t believe that you forgot it because it’s so damn warm, and comfortable, and nostalgic. Slayer is a return to a world that I loved, and thought I had left behind forever. From a Buffy-standpoint, it’s clear that White is also a fangirl and that she takes extra care in following the rules and timelines of the ‘verse (including the movie timeline, but also touching on several key points throughout the series—most importantly, its ending in 2003). But just because the book is true to timeline doesn’t mean that it’s a weak Buffy rehash. The thing that’s so appealing about Slayer is that its main character hates Slayers—in particular, she hates Buffy for taking her father away, tearing her family apart, and for her perceived selfish, brash actions that have universal repercussions. That’s a huge departure from any Buffy media that I’ve consumed, and this different vantage point was a valid and eye-opening perspective.
Speaking of perspective, and Nina’s perspective in particular, Slayer is at its strongest when it focuses on Nina and Artemis. Athena has been placed in a box her entire life. Fragile, too weak, not enough. These are labels that Nina has dealt with, struggled against, conceded to—so when her Slayer powers are activated, it means she has to change her entire worldview. No longer fragile or weak or lesser, Nina becomes the powerful twin, with a battlethirst that runs in her veins with the power of every Slayer that came before her. That means she has to grow into her own skin, but also changes the dynamic between her protector, Artemis—the girls struggle with this change and what it means for them as sisters. Adding a layer of complication to everything is their mother, who denies that Nina is a Slayer, and the Watcher council, who don’t want to train her. (This insight into Watcher society—and its antiquated brokenness—is particularly fascinating.) This is to say nothing of Nina’s internal struggle as she becomes something that she hates, but finally realizes what being the Slayer really means—and finally, coming to peace with Buffy and her choices.
The book isn’t all awesomeness, mind you. There’s a protracted period of navel-gazing with Nina’s reflection on her mommy issues (granted, they’re 100% legitimate, as her mom did leave her to burn in a fire when she was a little kid), as well as a frustrating length of time spent on obsessing over her childhood-crush-turned-Watcher Leo. Kiersten White tries to capture Buffy-esque humor in language choice and cadence, which is not always successful (much as I hate to admit it, 2003 was a long time ago, friends), and the end result is some stilted, awkward, trying-to-be-teenage humor.
Despite these shaky spots, there’s enough going for this book—its perspective, its dramatic insight into the Watchers (and their antiquated ways), the sisters at the heart of the story—that make it all worthwhile. Now, excuse me while I embark on a Buffy rewatch.
In Book Smugglerish, 7 and a half Buffy-esque quips out of 10.