Written by John Vornholt with only Season 1 to draw from, “Coyote Moon” (January 1998) – the second young-adult novel – is a time capsule of that period before Joss Whedon and his writing team realized they had the actors to pull off an adult show rather than a teen show. But it’s a readable and nostalgic time capsule that plays like a low-grade Season 1 episode (although it is set in the following summer).
Vornholt captures the atmosphere of the summer carnival, a place that makes you feel like the summer will be endless. He also finds some melancholia in the idea of a summer romance, which is what Xander hopes for with attractive carnie Rose. And our stomachs turn over along with Willow’s as she sees Xander enamored with the tattooed Rose; she meanwhile tries to make him jealous to no avail by dating her own carnie, Lonnie.
With two 16-year-olds dating people who must be at least 20, but nothing made of that fact, “Coyote Moon” is from a more innocent time. Come to think of it, the age gap between Buffy and Angel is surprisingly underplayed too.
Rose and Lonnie are werecoyotes, which the reader figures out long before any of the characters. (Yes, this is means Oz is not the first were-being Willow dates.) Honestly, you probably figured it out from the “Humans by day, evil by night” teaser. In a weird departure from a standard “Buffy” plot, Buffy is alone in her suspicions that there are monsters afoot. And, unusual for a story set early in the continuity, Buffy is the leader here, with Giles as a researcher who needs hand-holding in the field.
As much as Xander and Willow are in character, Giles is out of character. Cordelia and Angel are mentioned, but this is strictly a four-hero story, enhancing the “early days” feel.
In an oddity that never caught on, Vornholt invents a doctor friend of Giles who patches up Buffy and Giles after they incur coyote scratches. The Watcher is a font of knowledge on old, holistic medical cures, explaining his friendship with Dr. Henshaw. It’s not a bad idea for the gang to have a doctor ally, honestly.
Vornholt mostly writes in the style of “Hardy Boys” books, where a cliffhanger – usually with an exclamation point – ends each chapter. For example: “Giles’ screams rent the air as the supernatural shapeshifters mauled him!” But he does pepper in a bit of Sunnydale history; indeed, one of the founding fathers is a werebear, as it turns out.
Buffy is out of character inasmuch as she’s supposed to be brooding during this time, although Vornholt – who probably wrote this right after Season 1 aired — didn’t know that. He also didn’t know Buffy was going to spend the whole summer with her father in Los Angeles, so “Coyote Moon’s” setting in August 1997 is apocryphal. In “When She Was Bad” (2.1), Buffy returns to Sunnydale and the gang’s junior year starts almost immediately. Since the post-summer greeting between Giles and Buffy happens in the school, this story can’t exist.
That’s too bad, because – although the werecoyote plot is as telegraphed as it gets — Vornholt’s portrayals of the carnival on hot summer nights and the pangs of teenage love are nicely done.