‘Buffy’ flashback: ‘The Book of Fours’ (2001) (Book review)

Nancy Holder intriguingly expands on Slayer mythology and simultaneously scoffs at established continuity in “The Book of Fours” (April 2001). But even if the idea that it fits into Season 3’s TV arcs is laughable, this third hardcover in the series is a delicious page-turner that daringly breaks free of narrative convention.

The plot of the book, when looked at broadly, is straightforward. A creature called the Gatherer – under the stewardship of its minion, a voodoo practitioner named Cecile — aims to kill and eat the two active Slayers, become super-powerful, and take over the world. But it’s Holder’s little short stories within the wider narrative that are so engaging. An Arabian man is seduced by a beautiful magic user. A girl runs away from home and gets caught in a raging storm in Sunnydale. The depressed Watcher of the late Kendra is cornered by demons in Jamaica.

And best of all: The Slayer before Buffy, India Cohen, writes in her journal of her Slaying experiences with her Watcher, Kit Bothwell. Even Faith is impressed by the moxie of this chick, a tomboy with family troubles who would rather focus on sports than slaying. It’s fascinating to read India’s first-person accounts of feeling the power wash over her during her early battles against vampires.

“The Book of Fours” – which refers to various quartets, but primarily the foursome of Buffy, Faith, Kendra and India (the latter two of whom are in spirit form, natch) – is the first book where Faith appears (although her existence is acknowledged in “Obsidian Fate”). I suspect authors had previously been instructed to ignore Faith, since her Season 3 TV arc is so tightly written, and the ban was lifted for the last book of the primary Season 3 line.

This book is nominally set between “Amends” (3.10) and “Helpless” (3.12), and Holder draws from the “Amends” thread of Faith feeling like an outsider but not being willing to express her feelings. Buffy has a sleepover with Willow, but doesn’t invite Faith, because of the uncomfortable dynamic between the disparate Slayers (Holder even notes that Buffy is a “Slayer of Air” and Faith is a “Slayer of Fire”). That wouldn’t be Faith’s thing, anyway, except that deep down she does want to be invited. The author gives us intimate tales about how Faith uses men and loses them, as well as a sneak preview of her “want, take, have” philosophy – things explored on TV in “The Zeppo” (3.13) and “Bad Girls” (3.14).

I say it is “nominally” set in the winter of Season 3 because crazy things happen to the Scooby Gang here that are not referenced on the TV show, but should be if we’re considering this to be one timeline. Xander suffers burns and donates bone marrow to his cousin. Willow has such a serious head injury in a car accident that she briefly dies, and talks to Lucy Hanover on the Ghost Roads before returning to the bright light of her hospital room. Her hair is partially shaved off. Giles’ apartment is destroyed. I don’t mean it’s a bit damaged, as often happens in the books; I mean it completely collapses in a supernatural earthquake.

These events can fit onto the timeline if you take them with a mountain of salt. But I wonder if Holder concerns herself with such things. Despite being an outstanding character writer – note how Oz is in perfect laconic form, something most “Buffy” authors struggle with – she pays less attention to continuity. She even writes that the “Gatekeeper Trilogy” events happened the previous summer, something that contradicts the books themselves and would be impossible anyway, since Angel is in them.

On the other hand, some tie-ins do work. We see how Micaela Tomasi – Giles’ love interest from the “Gatekeeper Trilogy” — escapes imprisonment by the Watchers Council, which will allow her to be free to play a role in the “Giles” one-shot comic book, set in Season 4. Taking the baton from Christopher Golden’s “Spike and Dru: Pretty Maids All in a Row,” she further illustrates the inner corruption of the Council, whose elder statesman is a scheming evil-doer. We also learn that Buffy’s childhood best friend, Natalie, has died; although she is not referenced in other stories, it does provide a way for Buffy to reflect on mortality and how much Willow means to her.

There is a lot going on in “The Book of Fours” — perhaps too much — plus there’s the continuity insanity of what happens to Xander’s and Willow’s bodies and Giles’ home. But page by page, it’s a pleasure to read, most notably because the Slayer before Buffy goes from unknown trivia answer to a fleshed-out person.

Click here for an index of all of John’s “Buffy” and “Angel” reviews.

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