Scott and Denise Ciencin deliver another messy yet surprisingly enjoyable page-turner with “Angel: Nemesis” (February 2004), their final work in the Buffyverse. Similar to the couple’s other co-written novel, “Buffy: Mortal Fear” (2003), the ideas here are wildly imaginative and the characterizations don’t feel entirely correct, but there’s never any sense that they are phoning it in. Clearly, they love telling stories and their enthusiasm is contagious.
As with Scott’s solo novel “Buffy: Sweet Sixteen” (2002), his interest in the fantasy genre comes through in the Season 4-set “Nemesis.” Angel and Gunn travel to a magick-driven dimension, pursuing vague clues about the titular villain, a shadow creature that had gone through a gateway to Los Angeles and killed a bar full of people. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of the fantasy genre, because I find reality to be fascinating enough. But I got into the spirit of the authors’ world-building, probably because it’s important that Angel and Gunn learn the rules of the place – where mages can split into multiple bodies and can create structures and items out of thin air.
And the authors do a good job of tying in magick with quantum physics, something Fred is engaged with back in Los Angeles – the Arthur C. Clarkean idea being that magick might be something we don’t yet scientifically understand. Another good L.A. thread finds Wesley and Connor working together – something that doesn’t happen often in the TV series, now that I think about it.
The mystery is ephemeral, and sometimes Angel’s and Gunn’s activities seem a half-dozen steps removed from answers to the mystery of what Nemesis is and how to defeat it. For instance, Angel finds himself as the teacher of three lads in this dimension of magick, with the mage Bliss performing the actual spells while Angel pretends he’s doing it. Even after completing the book, I’m not sure everything ties together tidily, but most passages held my attention on their own.
The Ciencins have a tendency to go to extreme, arguably out-of-character lengths with their arcs, and that might bother some readers. But if you go with it, most elements find their way back to the status quo by the end. In “Nemesis,” Gunn is bothered that Angel sees him as the muscle, rather than as a partner, so much so that he writes a comic-book script imagining himself as the hero and Angel as pathetic. The authors’ attempt to do something as humorous as Spike’s narration of Angel’s fight in “In the Dark” (1.3) or the Hollywood production of “Last Angel in Hell” from the IDW Comics doesn’t totally land, but I admire that they tried.
Fred seems more outgoing than she should be at this point in the timeline, using trickery to get out of a tight spot after sneaking into a crime scene, and putting her hand on the arm of an old male friend she is catching up with. If memory serves, her confidence flowers more in Season 5 of the TV series. And the authors don’t lean into the relationship troubles between Gunn and Fred to the degree most other Season 4 authors do.
There are more examples of “That doesn’t sound quite like what he/she would say” in “Nemesis” than in a typical “Angel” book, but it doesn’t render it unreadable. I see it more as the Ciencins’ slightly off-base but mostly imaginative takes on the characters. To their credit are two exceptions: They write dark-period Wes and Angel-hating Connor better than they do any other character, and they have a better grasp of what drives Connor than most authors do.
The thing that makes “Nemesis” a strange page-turner is that for a long stretch I didn’t know what the focus would be. Is it about the old friend who calls upon Fred for a visit? Is it about Wesley’s new life outside the Angel Investigations gang? Ultimately, the novel does find a home base of sorts with Angel’s and Gunn’s adventures in the magick dimension, but it’s a long way into the nearly 400-page tome until this becomes apparent.
“Nemesis” serves up a lot of treats in the form of imaginative ideas. It doesn’t come together smoothly enough to rank among the elite “Angel” books, but it’s an incongruously fun read just the same.