ElenaSo uhhhh, we’re four books in and I don’t really know what to tell you guys except that I might actually like this series. It’s entirely possible that I’ve been Stockholm’d, that it was too terrible for too long and now I fawn over any little sign of quality. It’s possible that at this point, I might be grading on a curve.
She rises from the dead to recreate the powerful vampire trio.
Summoned by Elena, Stefan keeps a promise to her and fights the most terrifying evil he’s ever faced.
Joining the brother he once called enemy, Damon battles this new horror with strength, cunning, and deadly charm.
But overall I kind of liked this book.
I mean it’s not perfect! I’m not so far gone that I can’t see it has pretty massive flaws. But there’s so much more compelling shit going on in this installment that it’s easily, and by a pretty wide margin, the best in the series SO FAR.
Dark Reunion is told mostly from Bonnie’s point of view, and picks up about six months after Elena’s death. Stefan and Damon are gone, and Bonnie and Meredith are trying to return to their normal lives after an uhhh, turbulent senior year.
When a friend dies in a supernatural attack, Bonnie summons the Salvatore brothers back to Fell’s Church to look into it, at dream-ghost Elena’s urging. Eventually they discover that the evil vampire Klaus has come to wreak vengeance on Stefan et al for the death of his creepy woman-child fucktoy, Katherine. Natch, the group has to find a way to destroy him before he can hurt anyone else.
In general, there are a few of things that make this the most tolerable of the Vampire Diaries series:
One: it’s (more or less) a stand-alone.
While it obviously spins out of events that happened in the previous books, Dark Reunion is written in a way that clearly assumes new readers. Catch-up paragraphs abound, so there’s no reason not to start here. In fact, I might even recommend it, because then you can take things like Elena’s characterization, and Stefan and Elena’s relationship for what this book says they are, and not the clusterfuck they actually are.
Most importantly, it has a self!-contained!!! plot! There’s a beginning, middle, and end all together in one volume! There’s an conclusion that feels resolved and not arbitrarily cut!
I know this is some basic shit to praise but I can’t emphasize enough what a difference it makes in making Dark Reunion 1000x more readable. It feels like the first actual book set in the Vampire Diaries world.
It’s also basically a horror novel?
Yeah I read this a bunch as a kid and somehow never realized that. I was so distracted by the vampires and the kissing that I just glossed over the fact that many of the scenes could’ve been ripped straight from a Wes Craven film. The dream sequences in particular are surreal and grotesque, and the opening escape through the pitch-dark of Caroline’s house + the Goodnight, Sweetheart bedroom scene are totally cinematic.
I know there were some horror-ish sequences in the last three, but Dark Reunion leans into that hard. Between this and my re-read of Forbidden Game for the podcast, I feel like I’m finally seeing LJ Smith’s work with clear eyes.
She’s totally a horror author, you guys.
I never realized. It puts so much of the shit that felt random and out of place in The Return: Midnight into context for me, so I’m kind of excited to go back and re-evaluate.
Speaking of, I know I said Damon reminded me of Julian in the last book, but wow I think Klaus might an actual proto-Shadowman. He’s an original vampire – an ancient, nigh-invulnerable creature with white-blond hair and blue eyes, who, on top of the standard vampire powers that we’ve become accustomed to, can also manipulate dreams.
“Stefan, don’t! This is his territory, and his mental powers are stronger than ours. He controls it.”Christ, it’s like Julian if he were actually mean.
“Precisely.This is my territory. Unreality.” Klaus grinned his staring psychotic grin again. “Where your wildest nightmares come true, free of charge. For instance,” he said, looking at Stefan, “how’d you like to see what your sweetheart really looks like right now? Without her makeup?”
“It’s been how long since she died? About six months? Do you know what happens to a body once it’s been in the ground six months? […] In certain soils the skin can tan like leather,” Klaus assured him, bright eyed, grinning. […] “But of course most of the time it just decomposes.What a way to go. You lose everything, skin, flesh, muscles, internal organs—all back into the ground…”
“And finally it ends up like that, in over two hundred separate, easy-to-assemble pieces. Comes with its own handy-dandy carrying case…” On the far side of the circle of light there was a creaking sound. The white coffin there was opening by itself, the lid lifting. “Why don’t you do the honors, Salvatore? Go put Elena where she belongs.”
Klaus ends up being a decent villain: one-dimensional, but with an entertaining gimmick, and properly built up by the narrative into a real menacing presence.
Until the end.
But we’ll get to that.
Two: Elena on the periphery.
While she’s not out of the picture completely – that, of course, would be too much to hope for – Elena is no longer the main character, which frees up a shit ton of real estate for the development of characters who’ve been (charitably speaking) stuck playing second fiddle.
I ended up liking Bonnie quite a bit. She was paper thin as Elena’s underling, just sort of a blithering plot device, but Dark Reunion does a lot to give that characterization more depth without retconning it away. She remains the most outwardly emotional of the group, a bad liar and a bit of a coward, but now that Elena’s gone we also get to see her kindness and spunk, plus some interior insight into her struggle with her psychic powers. Her arc is about learning to rule her emotions (instead of the other way around), and it’s done in a way that doesn’t shame her for having them in the first place, which is quite nice.
Meredith kind of gets short-changed because she was always the most together of the group. She doesn’t get an arc so much as some plot-related backstory involving her family that’s supposed to explain why she’s so perpetually composed. I still don’t think it was enough to give me as much a sense of her as a character as I’d have liked, but I appreciate that we get to see her in action a lot more, and she does get a lovely moment with Elena at the end.
We also get to see a lot more of Meredith and Bonnie being kind, compassionate human beings in general. They’re allowed to make amends with Caroline and stick up for the other girls involved with the plot, which goes a long way towards making them likable human beings, and instilling an element of sisterhood that was absent with Elena at the helm.
Er, not that this keeps Caroline from getting dunked on or punished way beyond what her actions warranted, but, well, redemption for Caroline at all is a step forward.
Then there’s Matt. To my genuine surprise, Dark Reunion actually attempts to kind of address some of Matt’s emotional trauma. Like, there’s nothing about the obviously crippling sense of self-loathing that led him to Elena in the first place, but he’s in a state of depression – or something like it – when the book starts, and his arc is about finding his way out of it.
It’s, ah, iffy territory, because the portrayal of Matt’s emotional state is so movie-fied that I’m not even sure clinical-type “depression” is what they’re going for. Basically Elena’s death has thrown him into a sort of existential crisis, to which he’s responded by shutting down emotionally. For months.
“What’s the world really like? […] I mean, is it basically the kind of place worth saving or is it essentially a pile of crap?”It’s basically Julian’s challenge to Jenny in Forbidden Game 3, given more prominence to set up the book’s overall theme:
“And what about people, huh, Stefan? The human race. Are we the disease or just a symptom? I mean, you take somebody like—like Elena.” Matt’s voice shook briefly, but he went on. “Elena died to keep the town safe for girls like Sue. And now Sue’s dead. And it’s all happening again. It’s never over. We can’t win. So what does that tell you?”
“What I’m really asking is, what’s the point? Is there some cosmic joke I’m not getting? Or is the whole thing just one big freaking mistake? Do you understand what I’m trying to say here?”
“You can do that, you know. Damon says so all the time. You can join up with the evil side, the winning side. And nobody can really blame you, because if the universe is that way, why shouldn’t you be that way too?”It’s not like this is a bad theme, and I admit I might be reading way more into Matt’s mental state than I’m meant to, but it’s still a painfully superficial way to “fix” his problems. Like, a 6-month-long “funk” cured with a pep talk? CAN SOMEONE PLEASE READ THE WARNING SIGNS AND GET THIS BOY TO THERAPY?
“Like hell!” Matt exploded. His blue eyes were searing and he had half risen from his chair. “That’s Damon’s way, maybe! But just because it’s hopeless doesn’t mean it’s all right to stop fighting. Even if I knew it was hopeless, I’d still have to try. I have to try, damn it!”
“I know because I feel the same way,” Stefan continued. “There’s no excuse for giving up just because it looks like we’re going to lose. We have to try—because the other choice is to surrender.”
Finally, there’re the Salvatore brothers, still stumbling down the road to reconciliation that they started on in book three. The brother stuff is SO MUCH BETTER now that Stefan doesn’t run for cover every time Damon is sneezes, and some of Stefan’s best scenes are the ones in which he SERVES Damon like a turkey dinner.
While Stefan hasn’t rid completely himself of his trademark angst, it’s shifted from something that immobilizes him to a form of motivation, which gives him substantially more agency in this installment. He’s allowed to sulk and organize an elaborate sting operation.
Honestly, I kind of love this party sans Elena? They’re a rag-tag alliance of almost-strangers, united in their battle against evil by a promise to a dead girl. There’s a real brittle but sincere dynamic, particularly between Stefan and the human kids, that I enjoyed.
And you would think, that with all those lovely threads of character development, we might get some fucking progress in the handling of our resident sexual predator.
You’d be wrong.
Yeah, so there are still issues
It isn’t fair, Damon. To take an unwilling girl like that—”Oh my god I hate him.
“Oh, she was willing, brother. She was very, very willing.”
“Did you tell her what you were going to do? Did you warn her about the consequences of exchanging blood with a vampire? The nightmares, the psychic visions? Was she willing for that?” Damon clearly wasn’t going to reply, so he went on. “You know it’s wrong.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” With that, Damon gave one of his sudden, unnerving smiles, turning it on and off instantly.
Like, I’m glad to see that Stefan’s on the train re: informed consent but here’s Damon, our “misunderstood bad boy”, allegorically raping tourists who look like Elena, like a fucking serial killer.
Fingers touched the back of her neck.You know I totally shipped that shit when I was a child but now that scene – and the one that follows it – frustrate me so much.
Bonnie whirled again, almost falling, almost fainting. She was too frightened to scream. When she saw who it was, shock robbed all her senses and her muscles collapsed. She would have ended up in a heap on the ground if he hadn’t caught her and held her straight.
“You look frightened,” Damon said softly.
Bonnie shook her head. She didn’t have any voice yet. She thought she still might faint. But she tried to pull away just the same.
He didn’t tighten his grip, but he didn’t let go. And struggling did about as much good as trying to break a brick wall with bare hands. She gave up and tried to calm her breathing.
“Are you frightened of me?” Damon said. He smiled reprovingly, as if they shared a secret. “You don’t need to be.”
How had Elena managed to deal with this? But Elena hadn’t, of course, Bonnie realized.
Elena had succumbed to Damon in the end. Damon had won and had his way.
He released one of her arms to trace, very lightly, the curve of her upper lip. “I suppose I should go away,” he said, “and not scare you anymore. Is that what you want?”
Like a rabbit with a snake, Bonnie thought. This is how the rabbit feels. Only I don’t suppose he’ll kill me. I might just die on my own, though. She felt as if her legs might melt away at any minute, as if she might collapse. There was a warmth and a trembling inside her.
Think of something… fast. Those unfathomable black eyes were filling the universe now. She thought she could see stars inside them. Think. Quickly.
Elena wouldn’t like it, she thought, just as his lips touched hers. Yes, that was it. But the problem was , she didn’t have the strength to say it. The warmth was growing, rushing out to all parts of her from her fingertips to the soles of her feet. His lips were cool, like silk, but everything else was so warm. She didn’t need to be afraid; she could just let go and float on this. Sweetness rushed through her…
“What the hell is going on?”
First and foremost because Damon Is. Not. Changing. His. Behavior. What the fuck? That is requirement NUMERO UNO of a fucking redemption arc, you change your motherfuckin’ ways, that’s how you PROVE that you want to be better.
But he doesn’t, and what that tells me is that the narrative doesn’t think that this aspect of his behavior is a problem, and THAT IS A HUGE PROBLEM. What Damon’s doing is gross and rapey AT BEST, and it irreparably taints this character that we’re supposed to see as a romantic anti-hero.
That’s the overall narrative problem demonstrated in this scene. The others are I guess more ~philosophical~.
So, Matt interrupts, gets up in Damon’s face, and orders Bonnie to leave. That’s irk one – like, really, ordering BONNIE, the one who’s autonomy has been infringed, to leave so that he and another dude can fight with EACH OTHER about it, really?
Irk two – this isn’t just Matt being an overprotective friend. Not like that wouldn’t be paternalistic and obnoxious enough, but this is Matt running on a spark of romantic jealousy over the feelings that he’s clearly been developing for Bonnie throughout the course of the book. So you know, all manly-man “get up off mah woman!” bullshit.
Irk three: Bonnie defers to him and leaves! She admits that Elena and Meredith would never let themselves be ordered around like this, but goes because she hasn’t seen Matt give a shit about anything like this in months.
So we’ve got two boys flagrantly ignoring Bonnie’s agency, and the book is letting them, for the sake of each of their development. Ugh, I hate it.
Damon and Matt have it out, but ultimately come to grudgingly respect each other. Damon because Matt doesn’t back down when he threatens to kill him, and Matt because Damon doesn’t actually kill him.
This is also where the narrative goes into full Damon Redemption Mode, because Matt brings up Mr. Tanner, Damon’s last remaining “unjustified sin”, and Damon explains that he wasn’t going to full-on kill Mr. Tanner until dude stabbed him.
This shit has to stop. Big damn hero moments mean nothing if you’re a casual allegorical rapist and literal murderer in everyday life.
What the fuck, Smith?
These twists are pretty cheap
So, Tyler Smallwood, literal attempted rapist and minor antagonist from the last three books, gets upgraded to henchman and werewolf in this one. I bring this up because Smith goes to frankly kind of cheating lengths to keep that reveal a “secret”, and it results in one of the worst sequences in the book.
About halfway through, Stefan figures out the whole werewolf thing. He calls all of our perspective characters together to explain what Tyler is and what the plan is to catch him, but Smith intentionally skips that scene and moves to phase one of the plan. From there on, the characters, 100% in the know on this, think about everything Tyler-related with an almost fourth wall-breaking level of vagueness so that we, the readers, don’t figure out that he’s a werewolf until we see him turn.
It’s obnoxiously contrived and only keeps the lid on this heavily telegraphed dramatic reveal for like a chapter. And it doesn’t even save us from a motherfuckin’ exposition scene, because once Tyler’s caught, Smith stops the book dead to explain for pages what Tyler is, how Stefan knew, and how he thought of this clever plan to capture him.
It sounds nit-picky, but it’s such a clunky, poorly-executed maneuver that it took me out of the book. It was almost like it couldn’t be a true Vampire Diaries book without some serious fucking craft problems.
But that’s nothing compared to the kind of bullshit we have to deal with in the ending.
That fucking ending (also cheating)
Is it possible for something to be kind of set-up but still feel like a total ass-pull? No need to wonder, because Dark Reunion has that answer handy.
So, the last half of the book is devoted to trying to figure out how to kill Klaus. It’s a page-consuming investigation, because they know that OG vampires are weak to a specific kind of wood, but not which type. The only way to find out is to talk to a victim of Klaus’ who’s not only mind melded with him long enough to know the answer, but lived to tell the tale.
As if on cue, Klaus kidnaps Caroline and uses her to lure Stefan into a showdown, to which Stefan dramatically insists on going alone. He even tries to bluff-threaten the humans away, and gets rightly laughed at.
What follows is a pretty epic battle that the whole cast gets in on – Klaus and Tyler vs Stefan, Matt, Meredith, Bonnie, Caroline, and eventually Damon. Lightning is summoned, the forest is set on fire, and everyone gets the shit beaten out of them – it’s a tense and dramatic fight that feels like it’s building to a satisfying conclusion.
And then, I don’t know, LJ Smith said fuck it?
The brothers impale Klaus on his kryptonite wood – but he doesn’t die. Instead, he goes like…super Saiyan? He gets a hell of a second wind and incapacitates Damon, beats Stefan to within an inch of his life, and is about to strike the killing blow, when–
“Elena!” Bonnie screamed. “Elena! Elena!”
For an instant, it seemed as if the name alone had the power to alarm him. Or as if he expected something to respond to Bonnie’s cry. He stood, listening.
Bonnie drew on her powers, putting everything she had into it, throwing her need and her call out into the void.
And felt… nothing.
Nothing disturbed the summer night except the crackling sound of flames. Klaus turned back to Bonnie and Stefan, and grinned.
Then Bonnie saw the mist creeping along the ground.
No—it couldn’t be mist. It must be smoke from the fire. But it didn’t behave like either. It was swirling, rising in the air like a tiny whirlwind or dust devil. It was gathering into a shape roughly the size of a man.
There was another one a little distance away. Then Bonnie saw a third. The same thing was happening all over.
Mist was flowing out of the ground, between the trees. Pools of it, each separate and distinct. Bonnie, staring mutely, could see through each patch, could see the flames, the oak trees, the bricks of the chimney. Klaus had stopped smiling, stopped moving, and was watching too.
Bonnie turned to Stefan, unable to even frame the question.
“Unquiet spirits,” he whispered huskily, his green eyes intent. “The solstice.”
And then Bonnie understood.
They were coming. From across the river, where the old cemetery lay. From the woods, where countless makeshift graves had been dug to dump bodies in before they rotted. The unquiet spirits, the soldiers who had fought here and died during the Civil War. A supernatural host answering the call for help.
“No more blood spilled!” Several voices took it up at once. “No more killing!” The cry passed from one to another, until the swell of sound was louder than the roar of the fire. “No more blood!”What.
“You can’t touch me! You can’t kill me!”
“Let’s take ‘ im, boys!”
Bonnie never knew who gave that last command. But he was obeyed by all, Confederate and Union soldiers alike. They were rising, flowing, dissolving into mist again, a dark mist with a hundred hands. It bore down on Klaus like an ocean wave, dashing itself on him and engulfing him. Each hand took hold, and although Klaus was fighting and thrashing with arms and legs, they were too many for him. In seconds he was obscured by them, surrounded, swallowed by the dark mist. It rose, whirling like a tornado from which screams could be heard only faintly.
“You can’t kill me! I’m immortal!”
The tornado swept away into the darkness beyond Bonnie’s sight. Following it was a trail of ghosts like a comet’s tail, shooting off into the night sky.
Ghosts…just showed up…and made a ghost tornado…ghostnado…and that’s…it?
*narrator voice* That is not, in fact, it.
Elena was looking at Stefan, and there was no smile on her lips now. The wordless sorrow was back in her face.…and then Elena came back to life.
“It’s midnight,” she said. “And I have to go.”
Bonnie knew instantly, at the sound of it, that “go” didn’t just mean for the moment. “Go” meant forever. Elena was going somewhere that no trance or dream could reach.
And Stefan knew it too.
Stefan had been breathing more and more quickly. Now he lifted his face too, not in anger but in unbearable pain. His eyes were searching the clouds as if he might find some last trace of golden light, some flicker of brightness there. He couldn’t. Bonnie saw the spasm go through him, like the agony of Klaus’s stake. And the cry that burst out of him was the most terrible thing she’d ever heard. “Elena!”
Bonnie never could quite remember how the next few seconds went. She heard Stefan’s cry that almost seemed to shake the earth beneath her. She saw Damon start toward him. And then she saw the flash.
A flash like Klaus’s lightning, only not blue-white. This one was gold.
And so bright Bonnie felt that the sun had exploded in front of her eyes.All she could make out for several seconds were whirling colors. And then she saw something in the middle of the clearing, near the chimney stack. Something white, shaped like the ghosts, only more solid looking. Something small and huddled that had to be anything but what her eyes were telling her it looked like.
Because it looked like a slender naked girl trembling on the forest floor. A girl with golden hair. It looked like Elena.
Woof okay. So.
I like the way this is written. The ghosts make a rad entrance, and the tornado to hell is another thing right out of some weird 80s horror movie, which is kinda fun once you get over the fact that this is what’s happening. There is a genuinely sad moment between Elena and Stefan, and I will admit I’m a sucker for “No, I don’t want to go!” final good-byes. I liked the girls-first group hug that Elena shares with her bffs after she’s reborn, so it’s not like there aren’t parts of this that are cool.
But what the fuck, LJ Smith?
Supposedly the idea is that over the course of the fight, things have aligned just right – the location, the date, the weather – for Bonnie to cast a spell summoning unquiet spirits from the other side. I can only assume instinctively, because she certainly doesn’t plan anything.
But really? We spent the last half of the book finding a way to kill Klaus and then a ghost tornado that our protagonists have next to nothing to do with comes out of nowhere to remove the threat? We spend like twenty pages detailing this epic fight where everyone gives their goddamn all, just to have their efforts undermined by deus ex Elena?
It’s total bull, but at least the summoning of battlefield ghosts was kind of set up. Naked reborn human sixteen year old Elena?
Nothing. Nada. Ass. Pull.
More than anything else I’m offended by how cheats this is. You killed Elena last time, goddammit! That was your finale! There’s no precedent for the rebirth, no foreshadowing that I noticed, so it just feels like a flagrant middle finger to the audience and like…the rules of writing, man. It’s a shit note to go out on.
So…that’s Dark Reunion. It’s generally better-crafted than the other three, except when it’s not, the characters are much more fleshed-out and likable, the villain is properly monstrous, and it builds to a conclusion that’s quite satisfying, until it’s not.
Still, read other Smith stuff first. Forbidden Game and Night World and Dark Visions are much better. And maybe when you’re done with that, start here and then go back to the original trilogy. If you must.
That’s it for 90s-era Vampire Diaries. It’d be almost twenty full years Smith would publish another, in an exciting new post-Twilight market.
Wonder how things will change…