‘Buffy’ flashback: ‘Mortal Fear’ (2003) (Book review)

I

 was intimidated by this latest “Buffy” novel on my shelf, “Mortal Fear” (September 2003). It’s 479 pages, and it had a bookmark toward the front, so apparently I hadn’t actually finished it back in the day. As it turns out, this novel by husband-and-wife Scott and Denise Ciencin is the most pleasant surprise of my re-reading project.

Set in Season 7 before the Potentials enter the picture, “Mortal Fear” delves into things the show only skirted the edges of. The prologue is from the POV of a vampire who wonders why he stays in Sunnydale, the only town on the planet with a Vampire Slayer in it. This sets the stage for a lot of good writing where the Ciencins challenge accepted notions in the Buffyverse, from the absurdity of Buffy’s guidance counselor job to the shaky notion that Sunnydale residents are surprised when monsters appear. They also use the device of the Scoobies being magically possessed/influenced to force examinations of characters and relationships – a trick that was underused on TV after the high school years.

But rather than ending up with an alternate-universe novel, the Ciencins make the canonical timeline richer. Aside from the underrated “Him” (7.6), Season 7 skimps on Dawn-centered stories. “Mortal Fear” fills in that gap, as Dawn’s presence on the cover suggests. The cover artist paints some tattoos on Dawn’s skin as a hint of what we’re getting, without compromising Dawn’s traditional look, but that’s not precisely how it goes in the novel.

The Ciencins challenge accepted notions in the Buffyverse, from the absurdity of Buffy’s guidance counselor job to the shaky notion that Sunnydale residents are surprised when monsters appear.

In “Mortal Fear,” Dawn falls in with the rebellious crowd who fixes her up to look like a cross between Sally from “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and Siouxsie Sue (page 285). Completing the sexy Goth look, her studded belt is the thickest article of clothing on her body (401). (Admittedly, I’m not sure how her teased-up spikey hair reconciles with the fact that Dawn has long, straight hair throughout Season 7.)

This is a novel where Dawn beats up Spike and Buffy, throwing each of them through a window. Yet it works, and it makes me wish the TV series had done an episode like this. The Ciencins clearly establish — via tattoos that appear on their shoulders — that Dawn, Xander and Willow are under Simon’s influence, yet they are still to some degree their own selves. From that point forward, these Scoobs are acting out of character, but we know why.

The Xander and Willow portions aren’t as entertaining as Dawn’s, but Xander was likewise underused in Season 7, so it’s nice to see him at his construction job and navigating the advances of an attractive colleague in his post-Anya period. When Xander has random new acquaintances in Season 3 novels, it doesn’t feel right, but it works in Season 7, because its macro storytelling scale leaves ample room for gap-filling tie-in novels.

Willow’s arc centers on her computer-coding class at UC-Sunnydale, whose teacher is interested in blending science and magic. Buffy and Anya aren’t possessed, and we don’t know why they are spared, but this adds a mystery rather than being a plot hole; “Mortal Fear” is written with enough confidence that I trust the authors.

The Ciencins are gutsy at portraying how super-strength and dropped inhibitions have taken over Sunnydale, from Willow’s classmate who tries to kiss every girl in the room to the super-powered fight scenes that are more like the later “Buffy” comics than anything from the TV series. At one point, Willow gets thrown from the ground through a second-story window by her opponent. Come to think of it, the Ciencins maybe lean on people being thrown through windows a bit too much. But by leaning into their premise rather than apologizing for it, the authors sell it.

Still, “Mortal Fear” would’ve been better if it was tighter. Although it’s nice to revisit the Sunnydale Mall, the finale is overblown, especially since the book doesn’t need the nanobot portion of the plot. Able to create structures with their minds thanks to Simon’s magic-and-nanobots blend, Xander and Willow team up under the villain’s thrall. Although it’s only one paragraph, here we get the book’s biggest stumble: Xander thinks about his younger days when he was attracted to Willow (422). It’s Willow, of course, who had the childhood crush on Xander. (Xander’s feelings catch up to hers in Season 3, but the authors are clearly referring to earlier days.) Another misstep finds Buffy recalling beating up bullies before she was a Slayer (472); she didn’t have superpowers then, and popular Buffy was not likely to be a target of bullies.

There’s no denying “Mortal Fear” is long; every time I sat down with it, I thought “It’s taking forever to get through this book.” That said, it’s not exactly homework. The Ciencins give us a deeper dive into Buffy, Dawn, Xander and Willow than we get in the early Season 7 episodes. They build on the TV show’s concepts without repeating familiar plots and arcs. If it were tightened into a TV script, “Mortal Fear” would’ve made a great – albeit expensive — Season 7 episode.

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