Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Review: Anna Dressed In Blood by Kendare Blake

Cover of Anna Dressed In Blood, rendered in shades of white and grey with scattered red leaves falling diagonally across the composition. A white-skinned girl with stark black hair that blows straight out to the side to expose her neck faces a large, ruined house. Smoke swirls around her. She wears a sleeveless white dress with a hint of red on its knee-length hem.
Y’all know the Basic Buffy Plot (hereafter BBP). Destined monster hunter arrives somewhere new, befriends local youths, turns them into allies, and ends up falling in love with one (or more) individuals their job demands they treat as enemies. It worked beautifully for Buffy, but it’s everywhere now and I no longer find it fresh enough for my tastes.

And yet, I adored ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository], a book that hits every beat of the BBP.

Theseus Cassio Lowood--better known as Cas--is the only person in the world who can kill ghosts. He sends them to the other side with the athame he inherited from his father; the athame that’s only a knife in anyone else’s hands. He and his mother move from place to place whenever someone in Cas’s network of informants gives him a promising new lead, and now they’ve ventured to Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the ultimate prize.

Anna Korlov became Anna Dressed In Blood after she was brutally murdered by an assailant who was never found. She’s spent the last sixty-odd years ripping people to shreds when they venture into the Victorian boarding house her mother once ran. And yet, she lets Cas leave unharmed.

Intrigued, Cas sets out to discover what makes Anna so powerful, and so different from every other ghost he’s ended.

You see the BBP there, yes? The parallels only strengthen as Cas settles in to his new home and allies himself with the usual suspects: a nervous yet personable young witch who’s also a social outcast, a Queen Bee who’s more than a stereotype, and a guy named Will Rosenberg.

Then, of course, there’s the dangerous entity he really should kill without hesitation, but with whom he forms a strong, and perhaps even loving, bond because she calls to him like no one else.

And somehow, it all works. Instead of shunting me out of the story as the BBP usually does, it pulled me further in and left to desperate to wallow in Cas’s world.

This is at least partly because Blake doesn’t make the slightest effort to hide her influences. (I mean, Will Rosenberg. Come on.) She embraces the core plot and makes it her own. Yes, Cas’s situation is an awful lot like like Buffy’s. Yes, his new friends (and acquaintances, in Will’s case) have something to offer his so-far-solitary fight. Being pop culturally literate young people, they mention it, they giggle over it, and they get down to business.

Blake is also awfully good at keeping things fresh by approaching them in nonstandard ways. Carmel, the Queen Bee, doesn’t have to transform from shallow social butterfly into valued team member over the course of an adventure or two. She’s got a lot to offer right off the bat. She recognizes it, and so does Cas. Likewise, Anna is at once tormented by the curse that forces her to kill and determined not to be a mopey-puss grumpy-guts about it. She will not be anyone’s Doomed and Brooding Love Interest. She’s offended you’d even suggest it.

Thomas is your basic awkward young witch with a crush on the popular girl, but that’s okay. He’s also immediately aware of his power and his use, and he doesn’t need to change so much as find the people who can accept him for who he is.

BBP aside, the literary (and pop cultural) tradition suggests that Cas himself should fit a particular mould. Nomadic, solitary ghost-hunters develop certain personality quirks as a matter of course; which is to say, they tend to be untrusting jackasses.

Cas, though, is mostly a nice person with the occasional snarly interlude. He’s got a good relationship with his mom (who is a witch, not a clueless mundane). He keeps in solid, affectionate contact with his dead dad’s oldest friend, who’s also magically inclined. He doesn’t tend to make lots of friends his own age when he moves to a new town, but that’s because he knows he won’t be staying long, not because he’s a brooding loner who does his best to drive people away. Quite the opposite, unless they go out of their way to antagonize him. Hell, he’s even good to the ghosts he ends, because they tend to be victims and it’s not their fault they got caught in this terrible afterlife loop.

I liked him ever so much. He made ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD for me.

The book does have a couple of pacing problems. Cas transitions from, “Ugh, this guy is annoying” to “Hey, this guy is my best friend” far too quickly where Thomas is concerned. A couple of other important events fly by at the speed of light, and I’m not sure the voodoo in the story feels entirely well-researched but I don’t know enough about the tradition to judge.

On the whole, though, I loved ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD so much that I had no choice but to rush out and borrow the sequel the very next day. (Alas, I didn’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor, as discussed during a recent Murchie Plus Books.) I highly recommend that you, too, seek it out. It’s a quick, engaging read that works well as a standalone despite the presence of a sequel, and as an added bonus the print edition features rusty red ink. Totes atmospheric.

Oh, and there’s a very cool magical cat, if you’re into that.

6 comments:

  1. I also liked Anna Dressed in Blood a lot! However, I also share your opinion on the sequel. It honestly didn't feel like there was enough material for it, but it needed to exist to cover a few loose plot strands...

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    1. I think the sequel could've been a good bridge book if she'd gone on to write a full series about these characters, but without anything else on the horizon it just felt too slight.

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  2. But I am sad that the sequel won't live up to the first one! I will probably just stick to her gods and goddesses series instead, the second one of which simply will not appear at my library (grrrr).

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    1. I've been hoarding my option to borrow the gods and goddesses books. Someday soon, I'll have a gap to fill in my schedule, and I'll SWOOP IN and get 'em all.

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  3. I've seen Anna Dressed in Blood around for a long time and never until this review did I feel the need to read it. I like how this book seems to take some tropes of the genre and turn them around to make a new story. Also, the parallels with Buffy only increased its appeal: Will Rosenberg! It only could have been more obvious if it was the witch the one named Will.

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    1. It makes for a fun compare-and-contrast exercise, with a goodly dose of new material.

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