‘Buffy’ flashback: ‘Deep Water’ (2000) (Book review)

Laura Anne Gilman and Josepha Sherman, who showed promise with their first “Buffy” YA novel, “Visitors,” step up slightly with “Deep Water” (February 2000), although this effort has a lot of the same problems. The best trait is that the Scooby Gang’s case centers on an innocent selkie, a seal that becomes human when on land. As such, it’s a structural twist, as the “monster” in town is not a threat, but rather someone who needs help. The threat then follows the girl (named Ariel by the gang) in the form of merrows (think evil mermen). The authors use the “Angel” case structure and transplant it into a story set in the spring of “Buffy’s” third season.

Gilman and Sherman’s character and continuity writing is strong. A highlight is Cordelia (who is often a highlight in the books), who is still reeling from Xander’s betrayal. She finds a kindred spirit in Dr. Lee, who was betrayed by his selkie wife. Cordelia is enough of a side character that it’s not too surprising that books take the opportunity to fill in some gaps.

Perhaps more impressive is the way the authors tease out Buffy’s fear of water. She drowned in “Prophecy Girl” (1.12), then was harassed by the swim-team-turned-fish-monsters in “Go Fish” (2.20). Perhaps because it’s expensive to do location shooting near bodies of water, the TV series never played up a specific fear of water for Buffy, but Gilman and Sherman deftly delve into it in the form of Buffy’s dreams about a water-based threat.

Interestingly, prophetic dreams were central to Joss Whedon’s Slayer lore in the movie (and “The Origin” comic) and “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (1.1), but then it got set aside. When Giles says on page 177, “I should have insisted that you learn dream recognition before this all began,” I thought: “Maybe, but it doesn’t seem to be as big a part of the Slayer job as we were led to believe.”

As with “Visitors,” the authors avoid the cliché of the “not what they seem” character. One might assume there actually is an evil aspect to Ariel, the cute selkie girl; or, along that same line of thought, that Dr. Lee is right to distrust selkies despite his view being colored by one bad personal experience. That’s to their credit.

But that approach creates an opposite problem: Everything is what it seems to be. Ariel starts as an innocent selkie who doesn’t speak English, and she stays that way. Dr. Lee is mistrustful of selkies, and he stays that way. In tie-in novels, original characters give authors freedom, and it’s odd that Gilman and Sherman don’t take advantage of that.

Similarly, the Scooby Gang’s goals are on the surface too. They decide they need to clean Ariel’s oil-slicked seal skin, which she clutches like a security blanket, by using magic. So Giles and Willow experiment with spells till they get it right. It’s straightforward. The reader is not invited to participate in putting together clues as to how to clean the seal skin. And the environmentalism theme prominent with the story-opening oil spill is diluted by the end.

Because of these issues, “Deep Water” gradually takes on more of an “OK, we get it already” vibe. At 178 pages, it’s enjoyable to get through, but doesn’t leave much of an impression.

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