With her duology of Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares, Kendare Blake has created an intelligent, thoughtful, and sensitive portrayal of how, and why, the dead maintain their hold on the living, literally and figuratively. It doesn’t hurt that Blake has crafted a deeply appealing YA love story in the process.
These are the kind of books that will appeal immensely to fans of Lish McBride’s Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, and the first couple of seasons of Supernatural (when the Monster of the Week episodes were more frequent, and the show was still striking that beautiful balance between being dark and creepy, and being deliciously, totally inappropriately funny). These books will also appeal immensely to fans of McBride’s work and the Supernatural series because, like those stories, at its core Blake’s duology is all about family.
The story of Anna Dressed in Blood, and the events that grow out of it in Girl of Nightmares, begins with (Theseus) Cas(sio) Lowood. Cas kills the dead, moving from town to town with his mother (a practicing witch), so, naturally, Cas falls in love, hard, with a girl who’s already dead—a girl who was murdered long before Cas was even born. It’s a deceptively simply premise, because the two novels that frame that love story are so much larger than just that central conceit.
Built around a painful story of first, and real, love, is the story of a child haunted by the death of his father, unable, or unwilling, to form connections with the world around him for fear of losing those relationships as well. It’s a story of personal growth, told in achingly real terms by an outsider who is still very much a teenager. And here is where this book succeeds in its YA vein: Cas is a teenager trying very hard to grow up too fast, and to avoid the pain that comes with living. Thankfully, in light of that, Cas’ falling for Anna, the murdered girl of both book’s titles, isn’t a one-dimensional knee-jerk psychoanalytical representation of Cas’ preference for the dead over the living. Instead, Anna is a potent, beautifully rendered three-dimensional character—a victim forced by the nature of the curse she suffers under to keep killing, and to be forever bound to the damaged home she tried to run away from—caught somewhere between being a monster and a girl who never got to live her life. It is a tale of two damaged characters finding each other, and breaking free of the individual pasts that bind them, both literally and figuratively, though Blake aptly illustrates the point that breaking free of your past doesn’t always mean getting the life you want.
Far from being a shallow, gimmicky story, as these novels might have been in lesser hands, Blake imbues her books with a very real sense of the lives going on around, and in spite of, the tragedies that shape the narratives of both of the central characters. Blake also manages, quite adroitly, to paint the lives of the many secondary characters, and the antagonists (open and sub rosa) in the novels with a great deal of depth as well. No small feat since these are fairly quickly-paced novels, operating at YA length. They’re also fairly dark books, never quite crossing the fine line between the dark and the actively transgressive, but they do not shy away from the horrors they are discussing, nor do they make light of the plight of any of their characters.
Indeed, Blake has managed to paint her stories, and all of her characters, with surprising, and appreciable depth. No easy thing when juggling the oft-parodied pains of adolescence, and a fairly simple, if intricately layered two-book plot arc: an arc that begins simply enough with the premise of killing ghosts, Cas hunting down the spirit who murdered his father, falling in love with a dead girl, and finding a surrogate family. By the time the first book comes to its close, we’ve seen a changed Cas, and equal change in the lives of those around him, as Cas avenges his father and the girl he loves sacrifices herself to help him do it. By the time we hit the second book, the narrative arc is moving toward Cas redeeming the girl he still loves and can’t let go of, even after she’s literally damned herself to Hell to save him, all in time to open up issues of who created the athame that allows Cas to kill the dead, what that weapon really is, and why the shadowy organization waiting in the wings wants it back since Cas isn’t using it as it was originally intended (turns out Cas has principles, and only kills ghosts that harm people—a huge problem for the organization that crafted the sacred blade, since its members believe in, and practice, the eradication of all spirits).
Though the first book has a stronger, and more appreciable arc—in part because it involves more character development—both of these books have been crafted with care on many levels. Even on a production angle the books are well thought out and executed —even down to the fact that Girl of Nightmares was printed with type the colour of dried blood.
Though they never lose sight of the fact that they are aimed at a YA audience, Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares are exceptionally well-crafted horror novels. They’re also replete with just the right amounts of snark, angst, and character development to satisfy the itch for an intelligent, well-written book (twice over) that plays with some dark concepts and utilizes several different magical and necromantic traditions to tell its larger story. Admittedly, I found the conclusion of the second book a touch light (if apt for the narrative) for my tastes, but I’ll not hold it against Blake. The books are written for a YA audience, and I think the duology’s close speaks to that: it’s an ending that strives for closure, and that will appeal to many, especially those who still believe that closure is possible. I don’t much hold with the notion of closure myself, but I don’t think you could argue for a different conclusion given the intended audience of the books. And the conclusion as written closes out the two books in a manner appropriate for the story.
Ultimately, Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares are damn good reads. They may come off a touch light in the back end for those of us who aren’t still trying to wend our way through adolescence, but Blake’s work is definitely worth the read no matter whether you’re still trying to find yourself or not. And I’ve absolutely no reservations about recommending both books highly.