Book Review: Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake
I’ve been watching horror movies and reading horror books nearly as long as I’ve been reading. Nothing much scares me or surprises me anymore with the genre, but I still enjoy the genre because of the atmosphere the stories present as well as how the stories are told. I think horror novels are some of the more inventive lords of fiction. And while the BIG BAD may not scare me, I always find that there’s a certain amount of trepidation I feel for the characters, for lack of better word, when viewing/reading horror if the story is well crafted—even though I know 90% of the time they’re going to make it out of the story mostly intact. Anna Dressed in Blood was no different. I didn’t find the story scary, but I loved this certain level of eeriness this story possessed.
This book was recommended to me by Amazon because of other recent books I’d read at the time. I usually only give their recommendations a cursory glance at best, but the cover was a real eye treat, the title was interesting, and the fact that the protagonist was a male made we want to give this a try. I’ve had this book for a while, started it, but put it down in favor of something else. A friend and I buddied up and read the book together after finishing another book that I loved.
It’s not often that we get a male protagonist in the young adult genre. Perhaps that’s not a fair assessment. Maybe there are a fair amount of male protagonists in the genre, but if there are, they are obviously far outnumbered by their female counterparts and easily missed in the genre because of that. Here we have this teenage boy who has been slaying ghosts for the past three years of his life, moving from one haunted town to the next, secretly preparing for what he thinks will be the biggest fight of his life. Anna was supposed to be the true test of his skill, the slaying that would determine if he was ready for that fight. But even before he meets Anna, he becomes a bit obsessive about her, and after he meets her, he finds out that she’s not his usual phantasm.
I liked how Blake crafted the story almost like a modern ghost tale you’d tell your friends around the campfire, and it retained a level of intrigue that kept me turning, things rippled under the surface and were gradually revealed as readers moved deeper into the story.
I really have to applaud her in Cas’ character development. She did a wonderful job of capturing that youthful arrogance, pride, fear, and self-doubt. Something I feel so many young adult authors don’t do as well. This may be just a bias as an adult reader, but so many young adult authors exaggerate the things that define teenagers, which ends up annoying me to no end. It doesn’t feel natural. It’s like reading some gross caricature of teenagedom, their virtues and flaws magnified to a ridiculous degree. It’s hard to empathize with some other heroes and heroines for this reason even when I understand their position in the story. I didn’t have that problem with Cas.
Sure, the kids in this story did things that made me roll my eyes, but not in complete exasperation. It was more of an amused eye roll that I might give teenage antics in real life than an “unbelievable” eye roll. Now that’s not to say that there weren’t some moments when things did get a little too much, even for the fantastic nature of the story, but Blake had far less moments of that than many young adult authors.
I appreciate that Blake presented magic, even black magic, as not being inherently good or evil, but solely a weapon for the good/bad intentions of those who wield it. I get tired of so many books treating magic as a black and white, good and evil thing while ignoring the complexity that magic brings. I really liked that two of the good guys were practitioners of black magic (and Cas’ mom practices white magic), one even had a great deal of experience with voodoo, which is often maligned in fiction. So, it’s always nice to see an author trying to show the balance that white/black magic brings to the world without assigning good or bad to them.
I had a hard time believing that Cas isn’t behind in school even though he’s changed 11 schools in three years. I don’t care how smart he is because schools follow different curriculums and a whole host of other things that would have an affect on his education, especially with so much his focus going into the ghost hunter thing. I also didn’t think the murders that happened after Anna’s “release” were well done. I mean, it was predictable that they’d think it was her. I don’t have any problem with that, but it was a such a weak presentation and hardly seemed worth the effort of trying to cast doubt on Anna for the characters and the readers. There was nothing about those murders that made me even remotely believe that Anna had anything to do with them, especially since Cas says that there are numerous ghosts in any town. Most of them are nonviolent, but it’s conceivable that there would still be a few who were not.
I was also mildly disappointed in how predictable the deaths of Will, Chase, and Mike were. You could tell they were expendable characters to be used as cannon fodder to spare the other main characters. Mike’s murderous indifference to Cas’ life, drunk or not, seemed a bit forced and out of place for me. It seemed like she was trying to dredge up early sympathy for Anna by making her something of a hero for Cas, which was unnecessary as we learn more and more about through the story and eventually completely through her memories. And that, to me, was more than ample for readers to feel sympathy for Anna, especially when you consider that most violent ghosts are usually innocent victims who died angry. Anna was no exception.
Now, Blake played with theme of Anna being Cas’ savior instead of the other way around again later in the story, but that was exactly the moment when Cas needed her. I liked how Anna wasn’t a reduced to a quivering girl ghost who needed the slayer to rescue her after she relived the horror of her death. Instead, she was able to reconcile who she was with the monster that’d been placed inside her, making her more than formidable and in complete control of both aspects of herself. Now, some people may say that Anna being the supernatural protector is predictable, and that’s a fair judgment. But I liked that the main female protags in the story are not diminished by their male counterparts. Anna doesn’t protect more than she complements Cas. She doesn’t stop him from being who he is, but she’s more than aware when he needs her help. And I loved how strong she was, both mentally and physically, strong enough to not hesitate to make a pivotal decision in the big fight and strong enough to drag the BIG BAD down to hell or whatever, sacrificing herself in the process.
Carmel was another character I appreciated. Yes, she is the perfect All-American girl, but she’s not stuck on herself. I know we often get popular girls in stories with a golden heart as much as we get the bitchy popular girl, but Carmel is more than aware that her status gets her everywhere. She doesn’t dispute the arguments presented about that and isn’t beyond using her popular girl status to her advantage. And she’s also not the sweet girl who stands by helplessly. She has a protective streak a mile wide for her friends. She seems to lose most of her calm and cool demeanor when faced with situations she perceives as threatening to her friends more than herself. I absolutely adored the description Cas gave of her running in with an Amazon scream to help him and Anna at the end. Very reckless on her part, but she’d been presented as the type of person to do that, even when the odds were against her, throughout much of the story. And I love that despite the fact she was the popular girl she was seen as a warrior rather than a nuisance in her own right.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. It was such a fast paced great read that I was zooming through, eager to see what happens next, and I will definitely be reading the next part in this series ASAP.