Mini-Review: “Death By Dahlia” by Charlaine Harris

Title: Death By Dahlia
Author: Charlaine Harris
Series: The Southern Vampire Mysteries (AKA The Sookie Stackhouse Novels, AKA True Blood)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Ace, 2011

Charlaine Harris is definitely one of the biggest names in urban fantasy right now, what with her popular book series becoming an HBO show that seems to be equally popular. Nevertheless, I’ve not really had any interest in visiting her world–my impression of it was “Twilight + more sex – glitter,” and anytime something is mentioned in the same breath as Twilight I try and stay far away. Then I found the anthology Down These Strange Streets at Walmart for an absurdly low price and picked it up. Ms. Harris is obviously the name they want to emphasize on the cover, but I was more drawn to S.M. Stirling (always a favorite) and Simon R. Green (whose work I’ve been meaning to try), among the others. I thought there was a Dresden Files story here too, but there’s not so that sucks. Anyway, I’m a completist, and the first story up was Ms. Harris’ Death By Dahlia, so I resolved to give it a shot. While I’m still far from sold on the Southern Vampire Mysteries or whatever the series is being labeled these days, I do have to admit that it was better than expected.

Dahlia Lynley-Chivers is apparently a fan-favorite side-character from the Southern Vampire Mysteries who the author has been exploring in a series of short story solo adventures in anthologies like this one over the years. I definitely felt like I was coming into the middle of a story without all the information, but that was to be expected since I had zero reliable information about the world in question before starting. Apparently this is a world in which vampires have “come out of the closet” and announced their presence to the world, along with the fact that they’ve successfully managed to invent a synthetic blood compound that allows them to live without preying on humans anymore. Which is all well and good, but a lot of vampires prefer the real thing. Fortunately for them, there are a bunch of humans more than willing to oblige for a price…or even just for the thrill of it. The vampires typically organize themselves into nests, with the ruler of a nest apparently being called a Sheriff. Dahlia is a truly ancient vampire, among the oldest in her nest, though her small stature belies how dangerous she is.

Dahlia is enjoying herself. There’s a party going on at the nest’s mansion to celebrate the rise of a new Sheriff, and Dahlia has found an old flame to help her avoid the awkwardness surrounding the old Sheriff’s hurt feelings. Everything is going well, until one of the human “donors” is discovered dead in the kitchen….with Dahlia’s best friend and her Werewolf husband as the prime suspects. Dahlia will have to move quickly to get to the bottom of the murder….which would be easier if nobody had called the cops.

Like I said, this was better than I expected. I still have the impression that the series as a whole is more focused on the romance element than I would prefer, and is definitely one of the influences in the cultural shift I disparagingly refer to as “the taming of the vampire,” but I may actually give the main series a look one of these days. Dahlia is an interesting character, and the world she inhabits is a much more complex one than I was led to believe. The mystery itself was solid, not too obvious nor too shocking, and the story turned out to be just plain fun.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language. Bloody violence and the forensic examination of its aftermath. Strong, moderately-explicit sexual content.

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Review: “Eye Of The Draco: Darkfall” by Kadin Seton

Title: Darkfall
Author: Kadin Seton
Series: The Eye Of The Draco
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I have to admit, this one has me a bit conflicted. On the one hand, there were a number of things that kind of bugged me about this book. On the flip side, I couldn’t stop reading it. Seriously, I read almost half of it at one sitting, staying up long after I had intended to be asleep. Add that to the fact that I only just realized that this was a self-published book, and it definitely earns its four stars. Maybe it deserves five–the things that bugged me are mostly matters of personal taste, after all, but then again reviewing is largely a subjective practice so I’m just going to stick with that rating. I received a free digital copy from the author in exchange for an honest review, but that had no impact on my assessment except to ensure that I got to read the book.

The world as we know it is done for. The Draco, alien invaders from a distant star, struck before we could react, purging the Earth of its inhabitants while leaving our infrastructure intact for their own use. Within days, most of the population was dead. Now the only thing standing between the Draco’s colonization efforts and the utter extermination of humankind are a few small resistance groups scattered here and there. Alison “Allie” Spencer belongs to perhaps the most unlikely of all of these groups–a paramilitary organization of children, commanded by a prematurely-greying nineteen-year-old, spending their days hiding in basements and by night trying in vain to figure out how to hurt the invaders. It seems an impossible task, as the Draco are all but invulnerable to our weapons, but that’s not stopping them from trying. But against the might of an interplanetary invasion force, what can a handful of kids do? They’ll be hard pressed even just to survive, let alone strike back…until an astonishing discovery changes everything….

Like I said, there were a few things that bugged me about this book. The fact that I couldn’t stop comparing it to the TV show Falling Skies, for one thing. For another, a couple high-school science geeks armed with scavenged books, electronics, and a single piece of Draco tech are able to reverse-engineer a connection to the invaders’ wireless power grid while the underground US government is as stumped as ever? That strains my suspension of disbelief. The nineteen-year-old “General” of Sector Three is starting to go grey? Did you really have to do that in order to make him distinguished enough that we readers would respect him? Give me some credit–he’s pretty bad-ass, and I liked him just fine without that incongruous detail.* Most annoying to me, personally, was the interpersonal drama being set up for the next book. I have a deep personal disdain for that most popular of devices in nominally-YA literature, the “love triangle.” Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. It just bugs me. Here, the author is setting up not a triangle but a square, possibly even a pentagram if reports of a certain character’s death turn out to have been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, the book ended on a “down” note that just left me depressed.

BUT…..

Like I said, I couldn’t put it down. The annoyances were minor in comparison with how gripping the plot turned out to be. Sure, some elements were a stretch, but I didn’t really care at the time. It mirrored some elements from Falling Skies, but I liked that show, and a number of those elements are tropes now anyway. And the “love pentagram” really didn’t come into play until the very end. Beyond that, this is hands down the most professional self-published novel I have ever seen. The cover art is far beyond what I’m used to seeing in these cases, even if the eye there depicted once again recalls the Skitters from Falling Skies. I don’t recall seeing a single typo or bungled punctuation mark in the entire book, which is sometimes more than I can say for actual professionally-published books. Most importantly of all, the book was just plain fun. Will I read the sequel when it finally comes out? Most certainly! I look forward to it, in fact….

CONTENT: Occasional R-rated profanity, not prolific but nevertheless present. Explicit but not gratuitous sexual content. Strong violence, consistent with the war being waged.

*While leading a teenage resistance to an alien invasion would most certainly be stressful, contrary to popular myth studies show zero evidence that stress causes grey hair.

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Review: “The Saeshell Book Of Time, Part I–The Death Of Innocents” by Rusty Biesele (LEFT UNFINISHED)

Title: The Saeshell Book Of Time, Part I–The Death Of Innocents
Author: Rusty Biesele
Series: The Children Of Sophistra #1
Rating: LEFT UNFINISHED
Publisher/Copyright: CreateSpace, 2013

I never leave a book unfinished once I’ve started it. Never. Not intentionally, anyway.* But midway through this book, I had a revelation: Life is too short to waste on books that you have zero interest in. When you find yourself actively avoiding picking up the book you’re currently reading, that’s a bad sign. I’ve suffered through several really poor books on the basis of having won them in a giveaway, and feeling obligated to finish them so as to fulfill the terms of the agreement, but in this case I just can’t do it. Had The Doomsday Diaries or The Tarizon Trilogy come up in my queue following this decision, would I still have finished them? Hard to say. They certainly weren’t good, but they were at least readable. In the case of this particular book, I forged my way through the first third, found myself still completely unengaged, and threw my hands up in submission. The desire to know how the story ends is not at all a factor, since even beyond my disinterest I know I don’t care enough to track down the other three books, and so this serial will end (for me) with a cliffhanger anyway. I received a free copy of the book from the author through the Goodreads FirstReads program, and I’m always grateful for free books. I’m just sorry in this case that he got such a poor return on his investment.

The book opens with a brief chapter in which the book itself tells you how to read it, insults you, and threatens to kill you if you damage it.** See, most of the characters are telepathic, and there are different bullets and typefaces used to indicate whether the text is being transmitted on a private channel, an open channel, is a recorded transmission, or is just plain narrative exposition. This could be cool, I wanted it to be cool, but it turned out to just be distracting. There’s a frame story with a young boy (who is apparently the younger version of the main character) and his mother, who has used her fairy powers to drug her husband so that she can read The Book Of Time to their son. Apparently this is an atrocity, but will somehow fix future events in place in the form she wants them to take, except that “Atreyu” (who I take to be either God or an analog of Him) has already taken steps to prevent this happening. Not creepy at all. Apparently The Book Of Time is a paradox and contains all the stories that will ever happen, because the story that follows is supposedly the future. We cut to the older version of Stephan, the young boy, at age thirteen. He and his lover, the nineteen-year-old Tova2, are just hanging around invisible to observe the beginning of the education of two other boys. Ty is nine, sees “ghosts” who tell him secrets, and has some mysterious connection to Stephan. Tyco is eleven, can fire energy beams from his palms, and was somehow engineered by a group of lizards? I didn’t get far enough for them to explain that. These two are being tutored by Elof2, a Tibetan-American teacher. Oh, and apparently both Elof2 and Tova2 are clones of people that Stephan accidentally killed because he doesn’t have control of his powers. It’s a little jarring to hear someone refer to “the time I killed you” in casual conversation with another character, let me tell you. The world that is constructed here has potential to be interesting, as do the characters, but the writing prevents them from reaching more than a modicum of their potential. Beyond the writing, the off-putting factors go on and on; some I could overlook, others would be harder to do so. There’s a creepy pseudo-sexual (possibly actually sexual as well, between the lines) relationship between the thirteen-year-old protagonist and his nineteen-year-old lover. The numbers by everyone’s names could be tweaked slightly to be less jarring, like in the film The Island–Lincoln Six Echo is much less jarring than Tova2, wouldn’t you agree? The characters themselves, far from being as interesting as they’re supposed to be, just fall flat. Stephan is a whiny little teenager, and we have to be constantly reminded that he’s to be their messianic figure so we don’t hate him. Ty is almost as whiny, and the mystery surrounding his nature is also annoying. You can do mystery well, but that involves actually parceling out information as you go instead of taunting your audience with the fact that they don’t know what’s going on over and over again. The illustrations are supposed to be a selling point, but instead they’re just creepy. Initially I attributed this to the black-and-white copy I have, but after seeing the colorized versions on the website I have to conclude that that just makes it worse–everyone has “Sith eyes!” If you’re a Star Wars fan, you know what I mean by that. I hate to break my record, but I just have zero interest in finishing this book.

CONTENT: Mild language, so far as I read. Some disturbing violence. Disturbing pseudo-sexual content. The metaphysics of this universe lend themselves much more to alien life forms and powers granted by their manipulation than they do to occult explanations, but characters who aren’t aware of what’s going on would probably suspect otherwise.

*There have been a couple books that had to be returned to the library mid-stream, but I always intended to check them back out. It just hasn’t always happened….

**Apparently writing your name inside the cover doesn’t count, because my brain remains un-toasted.

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Review: “The Walking Drum” by Louis L’Amour

Title: The Walking Drum
Author: Louis L’Amour
*Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 1984

I’ve documented before my long-held fondness for the works of Louis L’Amour, and this particular book is no exception. Here you will find all of the adventure, excitement and historicity that has long been associated with the works of Louis L’Amour, but this time with a different setting. Most of L’Amour’s body of work is set in the Old West, or if not there at least on the American frontier as it existed at the time the story is set. The Walking Drum, however, is set in twelfth-century Europe, from Brittany to Constantinople and beyond. I am sure some of it’s impact on my memory has to do with it’s uniqueness among L’Amour’s works, but the fact remains that this is a well-wrought adventure novel with a wealth of historical gems hidden inside. My memory of it from childhood did not in the least do it justice. I very much wish that L’Amour had followed it up with the proposed sequel he was planning, but regrettably he died before he managed to get it written.

We join Mathurin Kerbouchard as a boy on the verge of manhood, his mother killed and his home burned by the evil local petty noble. His father, a legendary corsair, is lost at sea, rumored to be dead, but Kerbouchard doesn’t believe it. He resolves to find his father and enlist his aid in seeking revenge on the evil baron who burned their home. Of course, this is easier said than done. The ensuing adventure sees Kerbouchard as a galley slave and a noted scholar, a swordsman and a companion of princes, a merchant and lover to a princess, all culminating in a daring infiltration of Alamut, the fortress of the dreaded Assassins….

I can’t really offer too much of a description of the plot without major spoilers, as it is highly episodic. Kerbouchard embarks on one adventure after another, escaping one scrape simply to land in another. In some ways, Kerbouchard is the anti-Conan. Whereas Conan is an unschooled barbarian, come “to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” Kerbouchard absorbs knowledge like a sponge thanks to the Druidic training passed on by his uncle. Both are skilled swordsmen, and both are incredibly popular with the ladies, but whereas Conan prefers to start the discussion with his sword, Kerbouchard would much rather exchange ideas. This isn’t to say that he won’t fight, but he would prefer to explore other avenues in most cases. As with any of his stories involving a boat in any way, L’Amour devotes considerable time to one of his pet peeves–the misconception that people believed in a flat Earth until Columbus showed them otherwise, with Kerbouchard ridiculing the idea at almost every turn. Another particular notion he perhaps over-emphasizes is the intellectual superiority of the Moorish culture to the close-minded twelfth-century Christendom that made a virtue of ignorance. I’d like to be offended, but he’s not entirely wrong. On the other hand, that’s no longer the current state of affairs, either–they were called the Dark Ages for a reason, however flawed the term may be.

Ever reread a book you read as a child and been blown away by how much you missed on your first encounter? That was this book for me. Dad held this one in reserve until I was considerably older than when reading the majority of L’Amour’s work, and now I can see why. Even though I totally missed it at the time, there is a level of sexual content here that is totally foreign to most of L’Amour’s bibliography. It’s not explicit by any means, and in at least a couple cases I can’t even tell when it occurs, but Kerbouchard pretty much beds every woman he comes in contact with. The subtext is clear, even as nothing is explicitly said. There’s some very pointed and ribald flirting, but on those occasions everyone remains firmly clothed. Kerbouchard’s musings later on, however, make clear that at some point during the overview time-is-passing-quickly sections he and whatever lady he was with at the time definitely got it on. Nine-year-old me totally missed that, but then nine-year-old me was pretty sheltered. Nine-year-old me also missed a lot of the historical content that now makes more sense to the twenty-something student of history, but that’s only to be expected.

CONTENT: There’s quite a bit of sex happening in the time-frame covered by this novel, but absolutely all of it happens between the lines and is completely non-explicit. Mild language. Some strong violence, but nothing particularly disturbing. Some musings on the ancient Druids, but nothing too occultic–we know too little, and L’Amour has too high a regard for accuracy to say much.

*This definitely deserves four stars. The fifth may be a stretch for some people, and I freely admit the possibility of a nostalgic bias. I just don’t care.

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Mini-Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Final Cut” by Andi Watson, Jason Pearson & Cliff Richards

Title: The Final Cut
Writer: Andi Watson
Artists: Jason Pearson & Cliff Richards
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #8, extended re-release)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 2000

Once again I find myself with a publishing oddity while reading the Buffy comics. Issue #8 of the ongoing series is the only issue never collected in a regular trade paperback. Instead, it was expanded and included as a special hardcover graphic novel in the “Supernatural Defense Kit” collector’s pack Dark Horse released in early 2000. The Supernatural Defense Kit contained the expanded hardcover, Buffy’s cross necklace, a ring, and the vial of “holy water” that Angel gives her in the comic. (I suspect that the pages concerning that vial of holy water were some of the additions made, but I could be wrong.) If you don’t have a time machine or a lot of money to use on eBay, however, the expanded comic is also collected in Dark Horse’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus, Volume III.

You’d think that Sunnydale High School students would know better by now, wouldn’t you? Apparently not though. SHS student Marty is an aspiring filmmaker, so when he finds an old black and white film in a storage closet, he takes it home for a private viewing. This being Sunnydale, the character in the film stops mid-film and offers to make him a star…for a price….

This was decent, actually. In this format, anyway–I’m not sure how they got this to work in a shorter version, I only spotted a few pages that could have been cut without serious damage to the story. My only real issue with it is an intense mystification as to how the Scoobies avoided some serious police scrutiny at the end, but I’ll shut up about that in the interest of avoiding spoilers. The writing was pretty solid, and the art was some of the best I’ve seen from this early era of the series. With no real concrete clues as to it’s placement, I’m assuming it happens pretty soon after the events of New Kid On The Block, or just before Buffy S03E11: Gingerbread.

CONTENT: No profanity, some mild rude slang. Brief innuendo, but no real sexual content. Violence consistent with the Buffy TV show, both vampiric and the normal variety. Some brief appearances of Buffyverse vampires, as well as some unrelated sorcery.

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Review: “Hell” by Robert Olen Butler

Title: Hell
Author: Robert Olen Butler
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Grove Press, 2009

First off, thanks to the good people at ARCycling and to Mariela O. for getting me this book. Free books are always a cause for thanks, regardless of what I end up thinking of the book itself. In this case….well, my reaction was just incredibly ambivalent. Robert Olen Butler is apparently a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, but at least in this case I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. There are a few laughs throughout this work of satire, but on the whole its cynical view of human nature just depressed me. In fact, the back text “Tweets from Hell” which appeared nowhere in the actual novel was the funniest part, I thought.

Who’s in Hell? It seems like pretty darn near everyone, from Bill Clinton to Mother Theresa, and everyone wants to know why they ended up there. Hatcher McCord, as Satan’s top newscaster, has the job of interviewing all these wonderful folks and asking them that one simple question: “Why are you here?” But even though he works directly for the devil, Hell is no picnic–there’s the occasional rain of sulfuric acid to deal with, for example, or the unpredictable day/night cycle. There’s the couple living next door, eternally confined to their La-Z-Boys and bickering at each other loudly when anyone walks by. The one bright spot in McCord’s dismal reality is his girlfriend, Anne Boleyn, and even there everything is far from rosy. She’s fixated on her ex-husband, Henry VIII, for one thing. For another, it seems physically impossible to have satisfying sex in Hell….though that doesn’t stop anybody from trying. What is Hell like? Oddly enough, it’s a lot like everyday life, just without the good bits and with a lot more chaos and a higher temperature. Apparently Dante took quite a few dramatic liberties after his escape. You spend your time doing things much like you did in life, only without the hope of things turning out alright. J. Edgar Hoover runs the Devil’s surveillance service. Humphrey Bogart spends most of his time in the guise of one or another of his characters, always looking for Lauren Bacall. McCord gets to give the evening news, but the teleprompter is always trying to trip him up. One day, however, everything changes. McCord discovers that his private thoughts are his own and not, as everyone assumes, being monitored by the Diabolical One. Furthermore, there may be a way out of Hell….if only he can find it.

My reaction? Decidedly “meh,” unfortunately. I had high hopes for the comedy value here, apparently too high as it turned out. There were some laughs, sure, but quite a few of them were uncomfortable ones. I wasn’t bothered by the horrid theology–that was expected. What bothered me far more was the cynicism inherent in the tale. Heaven turns out to be a place of contented numbness, much like any anti-depressant based dystopia. The way out of Hell appears to be simply the act of trying to escape. And it doesn’t seem that anyone, not one person, made the cut and escaped being consigned to Hell’s flames. There are digs handed out at public figures left and right, historical and contemporary, significant and not so much. Those, at times, were humorous. Not enough so to salvage this book for me, but at least a little bit. I got the impression the author had some grand truth (or at least some grand assertion) that he wanted to reveal about human nature, but never quite got the curtain to come unhooked.

CONTENT: R-rated language. Explicit sexual content, typically strange and grotesque enough not to be arousing. Strong violence. Occult content….well, the majority of the book is literally set in Hell, so….

 

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Review: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Uninvited Guests” by Andi Watson, Dan Brereton & Hector Gomez

Title: Uninvited Guests
Writers: Andi Watson & Dan Brereton
Artist: Hector Gomez
Series: Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Buffy The Vampire Slayer #4-7)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Dark Horse Comics, 1999

Uninvited Guests collects issues #4-7 of Dark Horse Comics’ ongoing Buffy The Vampire Slayer series. Andi Watson stayed on as writer for these issues, getting an assist on issues #6-7 from Dan Brereton, while Joe Bennett moved on to draw The Origin and Hector Gomez stepped in to draw the four issues collected here. These four issues are available either in this collection or in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Omnibus Volume III.

In White Christmas (issue #4) we follow Buffy as she get’s a job selling popsicles at the mall to earn money for a dress for the big dance. Of course, there are supernatural hijinks afoot, and Buffy soon finds herself up to her neck in danger….Based on the fact that the Scoobies’ relationships don’t show any evidence of the train wreck that was Buffy S03E07: Lover’s Walk, I place this issue just before that episode (and by extension almost immediately after the events of issue #3, Cold Turkey). The difficulty with this placement is that we have to then assume it’s just after Thanksgiving and that it’s not quite as close to Christmas as Buffy implies. We could also place it just after Buffy S03E10: Amends, given that Oz and Willow make up again in that episode, but here Cordy and Xander seem to still be a couple, and that will never again be the case after Lover’s Walk. (Yeah, I know. I’m ridiculous like that. You should see the Word document where I tried to make the Star Wars EU canon make sense before they hit the reset button….) Happy New Year (issue #5) sees a rift in the ranks of the Scoobies in wake of one of Oz’s “episodes.” He got out of his cage, and Buffy was forced to subdue him, putting his arm in a sling. Thus, Willow is pissed. Oh, and there’s a cursed Puritan rifling through Giles’ library. Based on the broadcast dates, this is soon after Buffy S03E10: Amends, with supporting evidence being that Willow and Oz are (back) together. New Kid On The Block (issues #6-7) sees the Scooby gang with a new friend. There’s a new girl in school, Cynthia, and a teacher work day means that the Scoobies have time for actual fun for a change! Thus, they decide on a sleepover, which of course excludes Xander and Oz. Oz is cool with it. Xander resolves to crash the party anyway….but it looks like his hijinks are far from the biggest issue the Scoobies are going to have to face tonight. With no really relevant markers to help place this, I’m going to assume it occurs soon after the previous story–mostly in an attempt to leave room in the timeline for the large number of comics that still need shoehorned into this season.

I’ve complained a lot about Hector Gomez and his art in previous Buffy posts, but in this case he actually did a pretty good job. Xander’s still a bit “square-jawed hero,” but oh well. I’m afraid that will never change. Everyone was at least recognizable, even Oz, which was definitely not the case in the earlier issues. The writing was good for White Christmas, and it was interesting to see the comic foreshadow later events in the show as Buffy gets a job in fast food and muses on the impact being the Slayer will most likely have on her career prospects. Happy New Year, however, was much spottier. The first page was a mess, there are multiple places where I actually went back to the original file to make sure I wasn’t missing a page, and in fact the fate of one of the newly introduced characters is left completely ignored. He was last seen plunging over a railing with Willow. Buffy caught her, but what happened to him? We don’t know–I assume he’s dead, but you’d think that would put a damper on their holiday celebrations. Plus, there’s the cursed Puritan. Are we to take his longevity as part of the curse? “I curse you to be chased by this Hellhound until it catches you and rips you to shreds! As an unfortunate side effect, until he manages that you’re immortal. Oh well.” I’m just not feeling it. This could have been really good if it had either a.) had a throwaway villain that could be easily dealt with in the scant page-space leftover from the relationship drama they highlighted, or b.) saved that drama for another issue and focused on the cursed Puritan. Instead, they tried to do too much and failed. New Kid On The Block was back up to snuff, although you could pretty easily surmise that a certain character was not all she seemed.

CONTENT: No profanity. Some violence, consistent with Buffy. Some mild sexual innuendo, from the girls at the slumber party in flimsy pajamas to Buffy and Angel doing their best not to make out, but kind of failing. These are Buffyverse vampires, which means there’s demons involved, so take that as you will.

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