The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

Go Do That Voodoo, That You Do Do Well (review of Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake)

Anna Dressed in Blood (Anna, #1)Anna Dressed in Blood
Kendare Blake
Orchard Books 2012

Cas has, for as long as he can remember, lived a life less ordinary. Descendent of a long line of men with the ability to slay the already dead he has picked up the sword (well, knife) of his dead father and spends his time travelling America, ridding towns and cities of the kinds of spectres all too recognisable to those familiar with urban folklore. You know the type, the ones whispered of around camp fires, at sleepovers and by high school lockers – the ones that give listeners both a thrill and a shiver down their spine, enjoyed in the happy assumption that they are merely scary stories. Except Cas knows that this is not the case, that these tales hold real terror and that their protagonists must be put to rest once and for all. Generally, he’s pretty good at his job, slicing and dicing the ghosts and their familiar monickers: The Hitchhiker, The Cop. Then he gets wind of a phantom terrorising an old house on the shores of Lake Superior, a ghost that is viciously violent and carefully ignored by the community: Anna Dressed in Blood. Suddenly, Cas is confronted with a spectre he cannot slay but oddly one, for all her fury, that cannot seem to kill him, either.

Cas is a little reminiscent of the old gumshoe detectives, taking on each new case with world-weary resignation for sure, but not without admission of the buzz that a new challenge gives him.  While young, he is old beyond his years as one might expect for one who dispatches the dead and has moved continuously around the country, not to mention doing so while dealing with the violent death of his father. Even his interactions with his mother have a curiously adult bent to them and his inner monologue regarding his peers is remote and strikingly observant. And well it might be as he uses other teens only as a means to an end. As he arrives in Thunder Bay, though, Cas finds himself becoming involved with a few locals – something he at first sees as an irritation, then as a burden while finally coming to realise that having a little help isn’t always a bad thing. His interactions with the titular character of Anna are violent, strange, touching and compelling and his desire to avenge his father both believable and heart-breakingly un-thought out.

Anna herself is terrifying. When in all her furious glory she is a creature entirely of darkness but when in her, er, civvies she is one of utter torment. She’s difficult to describe because she remains enigmatic throughout, attaching herself to Cas yet maintaining a distance that never allows him, or the reader, to forget that she is dead. And not only is she dead, she’s a world of trouble.  o the last page her actions are unpredictable and while her friendship with Cas is fascinating, it’s hard to ever entirely trust her. She seems torn between pride and self-loathing, but if you have to be dead, and have to be particularly wicked then you could have worse titles than Anna Dressed in Blood, right? Other characters are fantastically well written, both complying to and yet shirking stereotype.  School queen, Carmel is particularly interesting; Thomas pathetic yet powerful and Will perfectly written as the sharp jock with no heart – paradoxical to almost every trait regularly applied to those in the letter jackets. Cas’s mum is striking as a women almost, yet not quite, resigned to sacrificing her son to the fate of his father while mentor Gideon is surprisingly present for a character who is never seen in person.

Yet, while the characterisation is very good, the book is not without flaws although they are a little are hard to quantify. Sometimes the pacing seems a bit off, sometimes the relationship between Cas and the mercurial Anna is hard to either believe or get behind (although this could be intentional on the part of the author) and occasionally, for all the extremely readable writing and visceral horror (of which there is much)the book lacks a certain depth that could have taken it to the next level.  However, the overall storyline is excellent and the ending entirely satisfying with enough loose ends left hanging that readers will be keen to read the follow-up, Girl of Nightmares

Talking of readers, after the recent hoo ha about a lack of books for boys, it should be noted that this is a book that teenage boys would undoubtedly enjoy but that has been packaged poorly - the cover is attractive but verges on a girly while the "spell-binding and romantic" quote from Cassandra Clare is poorly chosen and says nothing of the heart of what is essentially a dark adventure.  It's not the first title to miss a trick when advertising concurrently to boys and girls and sadly it almost definitely won't be the last. Regardless of marketing and it's hits and misses, though, Kendare Blake should be congratulated on taking a good look at the power of urban legends and writing them easily into a gripping and altogether frightening tale for the YA (and not so YA) audience.

This review was brought to you by Splendibird.  Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares are both available now.  This book is also soon to be YAcked, so keep a weather eye out for our discussion.
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