Monday, December 23, 2013

"Prime Evil" Review

Salutations, Scooby supporters and strap yourselves in for another sensational synopsis of the Buffyverse books!

Having already covered two of their novels, I thought I’d take a break from the titanic team of Christopher Golden and Nancy Holder and focus on other writers who’ve scripted Sunnydale stories. Thus, for my third review I’m thrilled to tackle a new author— here’s Diana G. Gallagher’s “Prime Evil!”

Released in March 2002, “Prime Evil” is the author’s second Buffy novel and takes place during Season Three of the show, sometime between the episodes “Dopplegangland” and “Earshot.”  

From the moment she arrives at Sunnydale High, Crystal Gordon, the gorgeous yet grim new history teacher, gives Buffy the wiggins due to her seemingly supernatural sway over the students. Buffy’s suspicions soon prove sound when she and Giles uncover Crystal’s true identity— that of Shugra, an ancient primal witch intent on harnessing the Hellmouth’s mystical energy. As part of her plan, Crystal has been creating a coven of thirteen magic users for a moonlit ritual, chief among them Willow. The Scoobies must save their friend, stop the ceremony and subdue Shugra’s immortal spirit in a shocking supernatural showdown.

Gallagher has a decent handle on the Buffyverse material — the cast, which besides the core Scoobies includes Oz, Angel and Cordelia, are all portrayed in a convincing manner. The author also gives several supporting players more prominent roles— mild-mannered matriarch Joyce factors into the finale, and weird warlock Michael and awkward Anya both shine as Crystal’s suckered school recruits… although considering how often authority figures have harmed students, I’m surprised the kids of Sunnydale trust any of their teachers.

*sings* "We don't need no education..."

Normally in these reviews this is where I’d discuss the dialogue, but in this case nothing here grabbed my attention— the speech is a bit exposition-heavy and lacks the Whedon wit, but it gets the job done. The best way to describe it is Joss-lite: it’s serviceable but doesn’t stand out.

Unlike her lackluster language, Gallagher’s greatest strength is her descriptive writing— she excels at crafting compelling atmospheric scenes and painting detailed visual pictures, particularly with the more violent moments:

[The] man’s body jerked and… flailed within an erratic, shifting web of crimson electrical energy. Tendrils of red lashed outward, cracking the pavement and whipping… [up] violent bursts of wind. An acrid, burning stench assaulted Buffy’s nostrils as waves of charged air rolled over her… with the force of billions of heated molecules gone berserk.

Another great contribution Gallagher makes is the idea of a Slayer database, a computer index chronicling all Watcher records. Given the importance technology and research plays within in the Whedonverse, I’m surprised no one thought of this clever concept for the series, Giles’ technophobia aside.

Despite these positive elements, “Prime Evil” suffers from a fatally flawed villain, perfectly described by the term “Big Bad”— discounting the fact that the publishers couldn’t even get her NAME right on the back cover, Crystal Gordon is an overblown, incoherent mess.

Someone's DEFINITELY getting fired for this...

The main issue is that her character is confounded by a muddled mythology.

Crystal/Shugra’s abilities are the result of a lightning bolt that struck her as a child, binding her essence to “The Source,” the vast, ambiguous wellspring for all magic that flows throughout the universe and living beings.

"Use The Source, Luke!" 

As a result of this explosive event, she gains the power of reincarnation, able to inhabit new bodies over successive generations. Her past lives span countless civilizations and historical events, including ancient Egypt and Greece, the Inquisition and the Salem Witch trials.

Much like “Blooded,” this book is rife with frequent flashbacks.  And similar to my criticism of that work, “Prime Evil” also suffers from terrible transitions; there aren’t enough headings to designate shifts in scenery. However, at least in “Blooded” each flashback was its own individual chapter— here there’ll be breaks in the backdrop within paragraphs, sometimes even when Crystal is in the middle of an internal monologue:

As Crystal scanned the halls searching for Willow, she toyed with the idea of simply eliminating Giles and the Slayer, but rejected it… [S]he did not want to contend with the mass hysteria… their deaths… might provoke. She had dealt with irrational mobs before and lost…

On a rise behind the great temple, Shugra waited in a clearing strewn with large boulders and ringed by… trees, protected by air and shrouded by fog…

These intrusive interludes are excessive and drastically disrupt the flow of the story. Furthermore, in “Blooded” the flashbacks fleshed out the foes and tied into their actions in the present; here, the author introduces ancillary characters and events that have absolutely no bearing on the main narrative.

Crystal’s supernatural skills are also problematic. Because of her connection to The Source, she has complete mastery of the elements and can conjure fireballs, hurricanes and crimson lighting. These already substantial abilities are augmented as the story progresses. Her increasingly potent powers include: being able to heal damaged limbs; exert mind control over her enemies; and use bits of living tissue to CREATE LIFE ITSELF!

Crystal’s talents trump even those of a certain domineering deity, and it completely severs our suspension of disbelief that she would have any trouble taking over the world.

The only thing that keeps Crystal from her ultimate goal is a number of ridiculous rules, such as the fact that members of the coven have to participate in the ceremony of their own free will. It’s as if the author realized Crystal was far too powerful a foe for the Scoobies and then started frantically backtracking to keep her grounded.

Crystal’s end goal itself is utterly unclear. The coven seems to be the key to her gaining supremacy over these magical streams, which will result in… something happening? Will she gain infinite power? Will she become the embodiment of magic itself? Will she be able to send Gozer back to the netherworld?! The book never explains.

"But I thought you said crossing the streams was bad?!"

Finally, the climactic confrontation is also exceedingly redundant— when Buffy and company confront Crystal, she animates the surrounding woods and they spend over five chapters floundering against the flora and fauna.

To cite another Buffy phrase, Gallagher is just going through the motions— her writing gets from Point A to Point B (albeit in a roundabout manner), but it’s in no way memorable, magical or most importantly, fun; the book is bogged down by bland characterizations, a bewildering bad guy and a blatantly self-indulgent backstory.

Despite an interesting premise, “Prime Evil’s” mistakes make it maddeningly mediocre, and it’s one of the first Buffy books I wish I’d skipped.

Rating: 3/5 stakes

"Prime Evil" is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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