“Just your average boy-meets-girl, girl-kills-people story…” So begins the blurb for Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed In Blood. We’re introduced to Cas Lowood, who travels the country, together with his kitchen-witch mother and a cat who can smell the spirits with whom Cas himself comes face to face. Add in a father whose mantle Cas has taken over, following his demise at the hands of a ghost he set out to kill and who left him partly eaten and so far, so Supernatural. (Particularly when we first greet Cas as he encounters a hitchhiker behind the wheel of his 1969 Camaro Rally Sport, specially picked for the job at hand).
It’s when he arrives in the new town of Thunder Bay, Ontario, in search of the spirit known to the locals as “Anna Dressed In Blood” that the Buffy reminiscent narrative really gets going. Here, Cas encounters the eponymous Anna, who has previously killed each and every person who has set foot inside the Victorian house she previously called home since her death. For some reason, however, she spares Cas’s life, which leads him to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to kill and is actually possessed by a dark force - the same one which leads her to rip her victims apart and hoard their bodies.
Despite the YA tag (or, indeed, perhaps because of it), Blake doesn’t hold back from disclosing hard hitting descriptive details when dealing with the deaths during the course of the novel – one character is literally torn in two before our eyes. Anna’s death, too, pulls no punches and makes for particularly difficult reading, both emotionally and literally; filled with blood, hatred and her desperation to escape during the attack.
The twist in showing Anna as victim as well as killer is an interesting one and one which results in an altogether fresh read, previous Buffy and Supernatural comparisons aside. Soon enough, Cas is gathering together his new (and only real) set of friends to confront an older and more horrifying threat than that he envisaged facing in Anna herself…
As a reader, you can’t help sympathising with Anna as the narrative progresses and Blake shows similar skill in her general characterisation, avoiding cliché in her depiction of the popular Carmel and the less than popular Thomas, who becomes Cas’s somewhat reluctant sidekick. It was also nice to see a novel with a strong male protagonist, given the recent apparent trend within the YA genre to view a story arc from the female perspective, a la Hunger Games, Delirium and Divergent, to name but a few. Cas, too, unsurprisingly, develops from the aloof hunter, alone as a result of his own conscious choice to be so and looking for revenge for his father’s death during the story’s arc.
As an aside, it was also nice to see the attention to detail in the typescript for the novel, which is an off red, similar to the colour of dried blood; particularly fitting for what makes for a clever horror story. Whilst the ending ties matters together satisfactorily, it also leaves things neatly placed for the forthcoming sequel, Girl of Nightmares, which will be available later this year.