Kendar Blake’s duology, Anna Dressed in Blood and Girl of Nightmares is a paranormal romance dressed up as a bloody horror story. Fortunately told from a male perspective, the novels are a mix of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Regardless of their obvious influences, the novels are a refreshing break from typical teen romance tropes and mores. Cas, short for Thessius Cassio Lowood, isn’t just any boy; he’s a prety kick-ass ghost hunting boy, akin to Dean from the CW’s Supernatural, complete with some daddy issues. Aside from that, he’s human and fairly likable. The titular girl, Anna, is dead. She haunts an old victorian house in the boonies just outside of Thunder Bay, where the novels are mostly set. In Anna Dressed in Blood, Cas goes there on a mission to kill her (again), since she is a murderous ghost. Things get…complicated, and those complications form the meat of the first novel. Without revealing too much here, Girl of Nightmares complicates those complications. Anna seems to be back and is playing out gruesome scenes of torture for Cas, whose decent conscious demands that he take action to stop whatever is happening to Anna, where ever she is and no matter what the cost. But these books are also the story of a lonely boy finally finding a place to belong.
Part of what makes these novels so enjoyable is a well-rounded secondary cast. This is where the Buffy comparisons come in. Thomas, Cas’s first friend in Thunder Bay, is a psychic witch whose character is a cross between Willow and Xander from Buffy, witchy powers included, though his stem from voodoo. Carmel is the extremely popular blonde unwittingly drawn in to Cas’s and Thomas’s world of death, ghosts, and witchcraft. However, she’s a hell of a lot nicer and immediately more likable than Cordelia, her pop-culture predecesor (and of course there’s a love-thing to be resolved between Thomas and Carmel, just as in Buffy). There’s even a stuffy british know-it-all, Gideon. Blake could have at least been more creative with the names here. Cas has a living mother, and thankfully she’s in on the whole gig (in fact, she even cleans the magic, ghost-slaying knife her son wields).
In the first novel, the main focus is on Anna herself and the relationship that forms between her and Cas. As her story unravels, so do pieces of Cas’s past, until they become inexorably entwined and Anna’s fate will determine Cas’s as well. The novel ends well, without major cliffhangers; Anna Dressed in Blood could easily have been a stand-alone. The meat of Girl of Nightmares is less Anna herself and more the relationships Cas has formed with Thomas and Carmel. Some familiar baddies show up to play in the dramatic conclusion, but there are also some new characters, including the vaguely sinister Order of the Black Knife (a druidic order hanging out in a resort complex in the Scottish highlands, black Armani suits and hooded robes included). One new character puts me in mind of Faith from Buffy, though again, more likable. Overall, the first book is the better of the two, but it was nice to see more of Cas and his friends. I’m just glad Blake didn’t submit to blockbuster-trilogy pressure.
And that’s the thing, for me. While these novels are fairly original in what they do, reading them felt like watching old episodes of Buffy or Supernatural. They were familiar in that they fit within accepted paramaters set by these shows, so it was more like watching a new episode of either. This isn’t in itself a bad thing; I love both shows. But it can become problematic when those references and paramaters are too comfortable and familiar, or when they show as badly as they do in the Anna books. I am in no way accusing Blake of plagiarism or of being unoriginal, nor am I saying that I dislike the books. All I’m suggesting is that she be a little less obvious with her influences. My final verdict is that these are enjoyable, quick reads with likable characters and better plotting than a lot of current paranormal teen romances. I would recommend these over a host of others currently out there.
[spoiler title=”One final, nagging note.”]In Girl of Nightmares, Cas and the gang have to pass a test put to them by the Order. This test is to survive the “Suicide Forest” in the highlands of Scotland. There is a real suicide forest, Aokigahara Forest, and it’s in Japan. Much of what Blake describes in this scene seems to come straight out of a 20 minute video on Aokigahara that circulated in 2010. This annoyed me greatly.[/spoiler]