‘Buffy’ flashback: ‘Dark Congress’ (2007) (Book review)

I

n the penultimate “Buffy” book from the original run, Christopher Golden takes a noble stab at linking the books up with Joss Whedon’s comics (which started in March 2007) in “Dark Congress” (August 2007). That part doesn’t quite work, but it’s a strong story in its own right, and most notably, Golden allows a goodbye between Willow and Tara that was stolen from them by Warren’s stray bullet in Season 6.

In “Dark Congress” – set between Nancy Holder’s “Queen of the Slayers” and the Season 8 comics — Tara gets resurrected by a powerful witch who aims to recruit Willow as an apprentice and gives Tara as a gift to Willow. Tara is unambiguously present throughout “Dark Congress,” with all the Scoobies meeting her. There’s one major oddity to this event: the fact that no one mentions it after this novel. This is of course because the comics didn’t concern themselves with stuff written in the books.

Golden achieves what “Conversations with Dead People” (7.7) originally aimed to do by having the ghost of Tara visit Willow. Ultimately, that episode used Cassie as a conduit to Tara.

But in a vacuum, this is a touching final chapter for Willow-and-Tara. I use the dashes purposefully, as Tara is never really a character outside of her relationship to Willow (this makes for a very sweet love story, but it’s also kind of odd when one reflects on it). Golden achieves what “Conversations with Dead People” (7.7) originally aimed to do by having the ghost of Tara visit Willow. Ultimately, that episode used Cassie as a conduit to Tara. (Amber Benson says she turned down the job; the producers say Benson wasn’t available.)

Willow’s other current and former love interests also have continuity oddities in “Dark Congress.” Kennedy cheats on Willow in rather epic fashion, something that’s not mentioned in the comics, where the duo has an on-again, off-again relationship, but not one based on mistrust.

Oz’s circumstances are also surprising. Building on the events of “Queen of the Slayers,” where a battle wipes out Oz’s home and his werewolf friends in Tibet, Oz takes up the traveling musician lifestyle, playing with a friend in Portland, Ore. This would later be contradicted in Season 8, which says Oz has been settled in Tibet since Season 4 (ironically in a flashback that’s similar – but not identical – to Golden’s “Oz: Into the Wild”). “Dark Congress” has some of the most vicious Oz-as-wolf fight scenes, with multiple instances of my favorite type of vampire kill: Oz ripping off the vamp’s head, then sneezing and snuffling from the cloud of dust. (One oddity is that Oz’s nakedness isn’t mentioned on most of his post-wolf transformations, but on the last one, Faith pokes fun at him.)

While Golden is clearly cognizant of the comics – noting that Dawn is starting boarding school in Scotland, where a new Slayer HQ is being set up – he continues from “Queen of the Slayers” the biggest continuity clash between the two visions: that the Watchers are still around. The novel “Slayer” (2019) would eventually make it crystal clear that the Watchers as an organization are gone, as the new Slayer Nina emerges from a group of Watchers who had been in hiding since the Season 7 headquarters explosion. Golden doubles down on Holder’s notion that the Watchers Council is still around, establishing that there are small outposts throughout the world, the better to prevent a large chunk of them being wiped out at once, as in “Never Leave Me” (7.9).

The tightest example of within-the-books continuity is the return of Micaela Tomasi, Giles’ ex who had briefly turned bad in “The Gatekeeper Trilogy.” I suspect if Golden wasn’t concerned with consistency with the comics, he might’ve brought Giles and Micaela back together, but her appearance is still welcome even if that’s not possible.

“Dark Congress” is thematically about politics, but don’t let that scare you off. Golden establishes a wealth of supporting characters, and those who ultimately emerge as the bad guys are compelling for how they relate to the Powers That Be. While the notion that the demons of the world meet once a century to establish policy about their place on Earth is kind of ridiculous at first blush, it’s definitely something we haven’t seen before, and there are humorous parallels to human politics if one wants to look for them (but they are subtle enough to not be distracting).

As with “Queen of the Slayers,” this book’s biggest contribution to the new direction of the Scoobies’ lives and the new reality where thousands of Slayers exist is the saga’s world-hopping nature. Holder and Golden had always been interested in going beyond Sunnydale even when Sunnydale still existed (a lot of “The Gatekeeper Trilogy” takes place in Boston, for example), and “Dark Congress” is no exception.

In little vignettes introducing new and old characters, Golden evocatively paints pictures of Greece, San Francisco (later to be the Season 9 home of the Scoobs) and the main location of Providence, R.I. The author is from Massachusetts, but I’m guessing he must be familiar with Providence too, to set a “Buffy” book there. As for the in-universe reason, as Buffy reflects on page 103:

The idea that a little corner of the world like Providence, Rhode Island, could draw this much supernatural attention seemed absurd until she wondered where else all these monsters would gather. Why not here?

It’s kind of odd that the demons use the actual statehouse in Providence to hold their Dark Congress, but then again, if the world’s most powerful magick-users are gathered there, I guess it’s a small thing to cast glamours and illusions that keep the populace in the dark. I wondered if a more remote location might’ve been better, but only for a second. Even in this fairly decompressed novel – which includes many nice scenes of characters eating, drinking and talking — Golden’s storytelling is compelling enough that I don’t dwell on nitpicks.

Because the later comics don’t reference anything from “Dark Congress” (although Season 10’s Magic Council is a close parallel to the Dark Congress), this has become a somewhat forgotten book. Partially, this is by Golden’s design, as he walks a fine line wherein this story has huge stakes yet everything is set right at the end and there aren’t many reasons why the gang would reference these events. The lone exception is the return of Tara, but that plays as a gift to Willow-and-Tara fans more so than a continuity glitch that sticks out.

While fans might not talk about “Dark Congress” a lot, it is the typical solid “Buffy” book we expect from Golden. Along with “Queen of the Slayers,” it forms an unofficial duology of an alternate narrative path after Season 7. Even pitted against the Whedon-overseen comics, this alternate path is quite respectable.

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