L.A. Banks, |
(St. Martin's, 2003; revised, 2004)
You can bet that, at some point in her life, L.A. Banks watched a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Check this: Banks' heroine, Damali Richards, is a fairly average 15-year-old when she discovers that she is destined to hunt and kill vampires with the aid of several trusty sidekicks (some of whom have special powers) and under the guidance of the Guardians, who have an arsenal of mystical knowledge about the vampires and demons she must face. TV's Buffy, as created several years earlier by Joss Whedon, is 15 years old when she discovers that she is destined to hunt and kill vampires, which she accomplishes with the aid of several trusty sidekicks (some of whom have special powers) and under the guidance of the Watchers, who have an arsenal of mystical knowledge about the vampires and demons she faces. Oh, and Damali and Buffy both have, at some point, the hots for a vampire, although both fail to realize at first that the object of their affections is, in fact, undead.
Notice any similarities?
But, while Buffy comes from Valley Girl roots and blends end-of-the-world chaos with wacky hijinks, Damali is a girl from the ghetto, a spoken-word hip-hop artist who avoids wacky hijinks altogether. While Buffy lives in a normal, suburban home in Sunnydale, outside Los Angeles, Damali lives with her team in a high-tech concrete bunker in North Hollywood, outside L.A. While Buffy yearns for a real life with a real job, Damali manages to run a fairly successful music career between slayings.
Damali is also quite proudly and specifically black, a fact Banks underscores often enough to make sure we never forget that this vampire slayer has no blond roots. While the point might be overstressed at times, it's nice to see a strong black character in a role that, Blade notwithstanding, is more often caucasion in books, TV and film.
Despite all the similarities, Minion manages to create a distinct vampire mythos in the first book of Banks' Vampire Huntress series of tales. More serious in tone than Laurell K. Hamilton's long-running Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, it presents a real sense of danger and mortality as Damali's team fights the evil undead and races to identify a new threat before it's too late. Too, Damali's internal struggle as she grows into her true powers makes for compelling reading and should help to carry an interesting storyline through into the next book.
Banks lost me on a few points, however, tying Damali's fate a little too tightly to the movements of the stars and basing her vampire council in the literal Hell. Grounding her story so deeply in astrology and theology makes the plot harder to accept in a modern setting. (Unlike the Anita Blake series, which occurs in an alternate reality where vampires, werewolves and other fey creatures exist openly, Banks' supernatural world remains hidden in the underground; those average humans who learn of vampires' existence typically die a few moments later.)
In more mundane arenas, Banks' characters often explain things to each other that, really, they should already know -- there are better ways of filling the reader in on important plot points -- while the Guardians withhold vital information from Damali and her team that makes no sense to conceal. The story's true villain remains somewhat two-dimensional by book's end, while another character teeter-totters between good and evil, seemingly noble in some ways while reprehensibly immoral in others.
The slang that peppers the dialogue, while distracting to some readers, assuredly helps to establish Damali's specific cultural identity.
Minion in many ways seems to set the stage for the books to follow. There is relatively little action; the book's primary purpose is apparently to introduce the characters and settings of Damali's world, to set events in motion that will develop later on. But Banks has unquestionably hooked my interest -- let's face it, I like Buffy -- so I'll be back to see where the story takes us from here.