“God! What is your childhood trauma?!”: Damned If You Do by Alex Brown | Tor.com

“God! What is your childhood trauma?!”: Damned If You Do by Alex Brown

Listen, I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, warts and terrible men and all. I was only a few years younger than the character when the show premiered in 1997. Nearly the entirety of my teen years was dedicated to prime time WB dramas, and much of my love of fantasy is rooted in Buffy and its spinoff Angel.

So when I saw Damned If You Do by Alex Brown (no, not me, a different one) comped as that plus Filipino folklore plus high school theater, I was immediately obsessed. Had. To. Have. It. Or, in the immortal words of Miss Buffy Anne Summers: “Now gimme, gimme, gimme.”

Cordelia Scott has a lot going on. Her grades suck, she’s secretly in love with her best friend Veronica, and tech week for the school play is not going well. And that’s before the demon pretending to be her guidance counselor makes a deal with her to trap another demon in a Precious Moments Maleficent figurine. Said demon, Fred, helped Cordelia get rid of her abusive father when she was a child in exchange for a piece of her soul. Now, to get her soul back, she has to find, fight, and trap Fred’s rival. Easier said than done. The big bad demon isn’t going to go quietly. This demon is making dangerous deals, and people are getting caught in the bloody crossfire. With demons and monsters straight out of Filipino folklore running all over town and Cordelia’s very soul at stake, what is a theater geek to do?

As much as I adore the Buffy and Angel shows, I’m well aware of their many problems. Xander has not aged well, but he earned his fair share of eye rolling and grimacing even then. Angel, a 270 year old man, pursuing a 16 year old girl was never not creepy, not to mention grown man Wesley going after Cordy, a high school senior. During Charisma Carpenter’s disastrous final stint on Angel, I keenly remember online fan forums talking about how He Who Shall Not Be Named was harassing her and killed her character off as punishment for getting pregnant. And so on. One of my ongoing frustrations at the time was the lack of diversity. Most BIPOC or queer characters were killed off or guest stars never seen again. (Kendra and Tara were great, but neither got the storylines they deserved.)

So while Damned If You Do plays up the Buffy references, it also manages to update and surpass them. The novel is less an homage than a remodel. It strips the show down to its studs and builds something newer and better. Cordelia Scott is a traumatized young woman experiencing even more traumatizing things. She isn’t a slayer destined to save the world but a young woman who made a terrible but life-saving decision years ago who is still dealing with the consequences of it. Sure, if they fail to trap the demon the whole world could be at risk, but for most of the book the stakes are much more personal. Cordelia wants the missing piece of her soul back, to tell Veronica she loves her, to pass her AP Lit quiz, and to get through the tech week from hell. Oh, and to kill her dad. Again.

Despite all the monsters and demons, the scariest part of the story is Cordelia’s relationship with her father. He is a toxic, abusive man who delights in exerting his power over others in the worst possible ways. It’s stories like this that remind me who YA fiction is actually for. As much as we like to pretend otherwise, there are many young adults with abusive parents who feel as helpless as Cordelia did. She notes at one point that the only person who helped her—really helped her, not just temporarily stopped the violence or ignored it but actually put what felt like an end to it—was Fred the demon. His solution to her problem ended up creating even more problems down the line, but at least he was there. There are lessons to be had here, about looking for real answers instead of fast ones, about stepping up for our friends in need, about knowing that no child deserves abuse. I hope the teens that need this story are able to find it and see themselves in Cordelia’s journey.

On a lighter note, I want to end this with a big ol’ list of Buffy references. (Spoilers ahead!) There are also tons of other Easter eggs that I’ll let you discover on your own. Happy hunting!

  • Cordelia Scott: Cordelia Chase, obvi. Also, Buffy dated a guy named Scott Hope briefly before he spread rumors about her being a lesbian only to come out as gay himself.
  • Veronica Dominguez: Veronica appeared in an episode of Angel as a friend of Gunn’s. Cordy saves her life.
  • Fred Williams: Fred, aka Winifred Burkle, was a scientist at Wolfram & Hart whose body was eventually colonized by an ancient goddess, Illyria. Olivia Williams dated Giles back when he was known as Ripper.
  • Jesse Smithe: Jesse McNally was turned into a vampire as part of a plot by the Master to trap Buffy. For the surname we have Smith who was on the Special Operations Team for the Watchers Council sent to murder Faith but she and Buffy had switched bodies. Athena Jamison-Smythe was the final Slayer called in Kiersten White’s Slayer series.
  • Sal: Sal was a girl during the Great Depression who gets killed by a newly turned vampire (she only appears once in a comics anthology).
  • David Scott: We’ve got two—David Boreanaz who played Angel and Dave Kirby, a Sunnydale student who was killed while serving Moloch the Corruptor.
  • Dustin Jones: No Dustins that I can recall, but the inimitable Doug Jones played I think the main Gentleman in “Hush.”
  • Barry Buchanan: No Barrys either, but John Ritter played a robot named Ted Buchanan.
  • Blake Jones: Actor and musician Blake Sennett played Michael Czajak, a Sunnydale High warlock, and Kendare Blake wrote The Next Generation trilogy.
  • Novitiate Annabelle: She may share the name with a haunted doll, but she was also a potential slayer who was murdered before she was activated.
  • Father Marcus: There were two Marcuses, a vampire with a flair for torture who Spike sent after Angel to recover the Gem of Amara and an evil liaison to the Senior Partners of Wolfram & Hart.
  • Mr. Jackson the math teacher: There were two teachers called Jackson at Sunnydale High, for history and algebra.
  • Principal Thompson: A stretch but actor Brian Thompson played two characters, the vampire Luke and the demon the Judge.
  • The Coffee Spot: Probably a reference to Espresso Pump, a Sunnydale coffee shop the Scooby Gang visited frequently.
  • Blessed weapon: Kendra gives Buffy a Blessed Sword that was used by a knight to kill the first demon.
  • Deal Day: Reminiscent of how Richard Wilkins, the mayor of Sunnydale, was a sorcerer who founded Sunnydale and made deals with demons in his attempt to become a demon himself.
  • Relationships: Cordelia and Fred feels a lot like Buffy and Giles but even more like Buffy and Wesley. Cordelia and Veronica have notes of Buffy and Willow and Buffy and Faith (especially the slash). Dustin feels like a Xander knockoff that is somehow better than the original. Sal reminds me of Oz but also of Buffy’s classmates who join the fight to stop the mayor’s Ascension.

Damned If You Do is published by Page Street Kids.

Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).

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