In the first “Angel” hardcover, “Endangered Species” (October 2002), Nancy Holder and Jeff Mariotte spend the first two acts delivering a decompressed narrative that shows their strong grasp of where the characters are at in early Season 3. We soak up Angel’s growing feelings for Cordelia and Fred’s post-Pylea introversion, and everyone is on their game (except, as is common for these novels, I always feel like Gunn calls people “dog” more than on the TV show).
“Angel: Vengeance” (August 2002) really grew on me as the story goes along. Scott Ciencin had previously written the uneven “Buffy: Sweet Sixteen” and co-writer Dan Jolley is making his Buffyverse debut, but “Vengeance” ultimately comes together as an entertaining portrayal of Angel’s inner struggle, while also giving a nice side plot to Cordelia and the underused David Nabbit.
You can rarely go wrong with a Jeff Mariotte Buffyverse novel, but some go more right than others, and “Stranger to the Sun” (July 2002) isn’t one of his elite efforts. His second book set in “Angel’s” second season is quite readable, but it’s pretty obvious where every plot thread is going right from the beginning. On the other hand, it’s a decent character piece for Wesley – even though he’s asleep most of the time.
The competition is on: Is Jeff Mariotte or Mel Odom the best “Angel” novelist? At this point in my re-read, Odom moves out in front with “Image” (April 2002), the best “Angel” novel so far. It has a lot going on, but everything is meaningful. Angel, Cordelia, Wesley and Gunn have warmed up to each other again after Angel’s Season 2 dark period, which lingered in Mariotte’s “Haunted.” “Image” feels entirely like an “Angel” episode, yet it has the heft of a novel … yet the scope doesn’t get too big and overshadow the TV series’ events; that’s the highest compliment I can give to Buffyverse spinoff fiction.
On my first reading of the “Angel” novel “Haunted” (February 2002), I probably wasn’t thrilled with the reality-TV focus. That was the era when a lot of good shows were being canceled to make room for cheaper and more profitable reality TV. Such fears seem silly today when there are more good scripted shows than ever.
“These Our Actors” (September 2002) is everything a “Buffy” novel should be. Authors Ashely McConnell and Dori Koogler fill in a narrative gap from the TV show and turn supporting players – Spike and Willow – into main characters, allowing for a fresh perspective on things, rather than simply showing us they know the show’s rhythms (which they do).
Until the recent “High School Years” comics, the makers of “Buffy” spinoff fiction didn’t consistently commit to the young-adult genre. In the YA line of novels, you never knew if you were going to get a slightly shorter adult novel or something that truly was aimed at young readers. Perhaps this is why the YA line ended six years before the adult line. Ironically, the last entry – Rebecca Moesta’s “Little Things” (August 2002) – fits the YA mold the best of any “Buffy” book.
Christopher Golden pens another of his excellent “Buffy” epics with “The Wisdom of War” (July 2002). While it feels a little too big for its britches as I try to reconcile this story fitting into the TV show’s narrative flow – for example, Xander nearly gets turned into a fish monster in a more serious reprise of “Go Fish” (2.20) and Buffy suffers a life-threatening injury in the final battle – it earns serious points because Golden nails Faith’s characterization in his first crack at writing the rogue Slayer.
After a few late-Season 5 novels skimmed over Joyce’s death as if scared to address it, Mel Odom does it right with the young-adult novel “Crossings” (June 2002). Set between “Forever” (5.17) and “Intervention” (5.18), as most of these late-Season 5 entries are, it digs into the new Buffy-Dawn dynamic while also serving as a sneak preview for additional Season 6 themes like Willow’s magic addiction.
In his debut Buffverse novel, the young-adult entry “Sweet Sixteen” (April 2002), veteran fantasy writer Scott Ciencin seems to make a smart call by focusing on the often-underused Dawn. But after a solid start where Dawn befriends picked-on new girl Arianna, the plot is driven by misunderstandings, manipulations and contrivances. Arguably worse, most of the Scooby Gang is out of character. The book never coalesces into a satisfying whole, and even good tidbits are few and far between.