About a year after my husband and I started dating, his father suggested a family outing to help to get to know each other better. Being in the proper sycophant mode that the early stages of a relationship require, I readily agreed. Of course, by now I know to thoroughly question any suggestion of my father-in-law’s, and even then I had a slight inkling of a warning bell, which I, unfortunately, ignored.
As it turned out, the family outing involved spending the night in the local cemetery. As every well-adjusted family is wont to do. My father-in-law, you see, is a strict buddhist with a slight sense of the cuckoo, and rather liked the idea of getting close to his spiritual side by, well, getting close to some spirits. And so, off we went, sleeping bags and pillows and thermoses of green tea in tow, to sleep in a rotunda in the centre of the cemetery.
All went generally well (perhaps thanks to the chanting and circle walking of my father-in-law) with two exceptions. The first was that in the middle of the night we were woken by the police, who were highly dubious about our getting in some shut-eye at the cemetery.
And the second was the many, many floating white orbs that dotted the photos my father-in-law took that night.
Let’s just say that it’s fortunate that unlike Cas Lowood, the ghost-busting protagonist of Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood, we weren’t there to cast any spookies back to the spirit realm. A couple of buddhists (the Chang family) and a pacifist (me) probably aren’t who you want to bank on when it comes to getting your Buffy on. Trust me when I say that you’re better off placing your bets on Cas, for whom ghost slaying is a family vocation that goes way back.
That’s not to say that cleansing the world of things that go bump in the night is necessarily easy. You see, Cas’s dad was brutally killed one night in the line of duty. Killed, and then eaten, with great big chunks torn out of him. So it’s all up to Cas now, and it’s a duty he takes seriously, fielding reports of ghostly activity, moving in to take out his target, and then moving on to the next one.
But Cas has just received word of a mean ghost. A horrific ghost. A ghost who tears its victims from limb to limb, splits them in two, gouges their hearts out. A ghost who leaves its victims piling up in the basement. A ghost who was once Anna Karlov, but who is now Anna Dressed in Blood, and who Cas might, just might, be falling in love with.
This, as you might imagine, is never a good thing. Particularly given that Anna has just eviscerated one of the kids from Cas’s new school, and seems quite intent on gutting and drawing anyone else who crosses her path. Particularly since there have been other deaths reported in the area recently; other deaths that may have been at the hands of Anna. What’s a boy to do when the girl he’s crushing on has a very questionable, very homicidal way of showing her affection?
But although Anna Dressed in Blood starts out all jeepers creepers and gore galore, its Gothic, moody vibe seems to ebb away as the story progresses, and the horror promised by the set up never actually eventuates. As suggested by the very large quote by Cassandra Clare on the cover (“spellbinding and romantic”), the book is MR James diluted with a good dose of Twilight, and it’s the romantic element, tenuous that it is, that results in the book being less suspenseful than might be hoped. It’s a book that I expected to be vicious and cruel and witty and elegant, but rather it’s a bit more like a mid-season episode of Buffy. And not the singing episode, either.
Anna-of-the-grisly-name may be initially presented as an all-out terror who has the capacity to quickly end Cas’s ghost-hunting career, but we quite promptly learn that she has no ability to harm him, or even an interest in doing so. This, as you might imagine, rather reduces the tension of the narrative. The apparently fearsome nature of Anna is further diminished as we learn more about her and as she switches between different forms, but rather than this endearing her to me, to be honest I felt a little disappointed by the gradual unravelling of her character. It’s rather like if Samson went out to hunt Goliath, only to find that this fearsome warrior of legend was quite content sitting inside his home and reading the newspaper. “Sorry, Samson, lad. I’ve retired so that I can spend more time on my vegetable garden. Jolly good that you called by, though, eh?”
Because of this positioning of Anna and Cas, the way that the plot eventually unfolds feels a little by the numbers, and the second half of the book didn’t hold my interest as much as the first. The Anna situation is effectively put away two-thirds through the book, resulting in a good deal of page extent that had still to be filled.
I couldn’t help but feel that I was reading a series set-up more than a self-contained novel, and that this book was designed to bring the various key characters together, familiarise us with Cas’s back story, and introduce the real baddie for the series. As noted above, the plot involving Anna is almost side-stepped in order to deal with this element, something which, though probably the eeriest part of the book, was resolved surprisingly quickly and with relative ease.
Perhaps the weakest element of the book is the characters themselves, and the fact that they seem so devoid of emotion. I found it difficult to believe the way in which Cas’s school friends and his mother reacted to the various ghostly shenanigans and, oh, you know, the brutal murders of their friends, and I think it’s partly this that caused the book the lack the suspense I was expecting to feel. When characters react to such terrible things in an emotionally uninvested manner, it’s hard to believe that there’s much at stake, or much to fear. I know that teenagers are famously apathetic, but I did feel that a more significant and ongoing reaction was warranted here.
The characters are similarly removed in their other interactions, and it’s hard not to see them as forced–the would-be romantic tension between Cas and Anna as well as that between two of Cas’s new friends just feels more like a plot machination, and there’s something that just rings false about it. I do wonder, however, whether this might be partly due to the fact that the book is told from Cas’s perspective, and Cas, who has just a wee bit of a superiority complex happening, is perhaps not the most perceptive when it comes to other people’s emotions.
Though Anna Dressed in Blood lacks the horror and tension needed to fulfil the promise of its opening, and its characters are underwhelming, it buzzes along at a solid pace, and there’s enough here in the way of witchcraft and voodoo and ghosties to keep one’s interest. Despite my reservations about the underwhelming plot and characters, I’m interested to see where Blake takes the next in the series. As a Cemetery Slumber Party survivor, I’m pretty sure I can hack it.
With thanks to Hachette Australia for the review copy
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Other books by Kendare Blake: