I was lucky enough to score an advance reader copy of Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood at last year’s Tor.com meetup and loved it, so I jumped at a chance to read and review its sequel, Girl of Nightmares, which comes out today! Girl of Nightmares is just as clever, thoughtful, and creepy as its predecessor, with the added bonus of extending the first novel’s mythology in interesting new ways.
Mild SPOILERS for Anna Dressed in Blood.
Girl of Nightmares picks up right where Anna Dressed in Blood left off, and we see Cas in mourning for Anna even as he struggles with his decision to remain in school at Thunder Bay, in order to stay near Carmel and Thomas. But his friends want him to move on, to live a normal life (occasional team ghost hunts aside) and let go of Anna, the powerful ghost girl who sacrificed herself to save them all from the Obeahman, and Cas isn’t sure he can.
Letting go gets a bit harder when he starts to see Anna in unexpected places; her likeness in the face of a barn-haunting ghost, her dress on display in a window at the mall, Anna climbing inside a furnace in an abandoned factory and burning up. No one else can see what Cas sees, and he wonders if he’s losing his mind, but as the visions—some dreaming, some waking—get more intense and more violent, Cas knows he can’t ignore them forever.
And although his mother and friends are sceptical and the mysterious Gideon—Cas’s sometimes-advisor from the first book—promises him again and again that there is no way for the dead to come back and begs him to let this be, Cas makes the decision that he is going to find a way to bring Anna back from the other side. This decision leads him on a journey not only to discover the fate of the dead girl he loves, but also the truth about his family, the origin of the athame, and the still-present danger of an old enemy.
Blake’s world, although built on a familiar premise, is incredibly imaginative in every detail, and her horror kept me alternately wincing and turning pages as fast as I could. I wasn’t sure she could top herself after the spectacular and gruesome ghosts we saw in Anna Dressed in Blood (specifically Anna and the Obeahman) but she managed it, and there were several action sequences that left me jittery afterwards.
In addition, we meet a new character in Jestine, who manages, while annoying Cas at every turn with her attack first, ask questions later approach and superior I-know-more-than-you attitude, to be a more complex and interesting character than either I or Cas expected when first meeting her. It isn’t surprising that Cas comes to like her, even despite himself (he has certainly shown that he is partial to girls as stubborn as he is) and the two of them quickly find out just how much they have in common.
Jestine is a nice addition to a male-heavy cast, and helps make up for the fact that I was a little disappointed in the character of Carmel in this book. As things get darker for Cas and his team, Carmel begins to question her desire to be a part of this supernatural world and all the danger and horror that it contains, and while this makes sense for her as the only non-supernatural person involved in events, the actual arc of her journey felt a little forced to me, a little contrived—perhaps because I could only witness it through Cas’s eyes, and didn’t really have a position of empathy with her. Still, by the end of the story we’re again seeing the strong Carmel I grew to love in the first novel, so I was ultimately satisfied, and liked the juxtaposition of her character with Jestine’s; two interesting and very different female characters, which the world could certainly do with more of.
For fans of star-crossed lovers, Cas and Anna are a perfect pair. Brave, powerful, stubborn Anna makes more than one reappearance in all her bloody dress glory, and wry, clever Cas is at his most determined. But in this book there’s even more reason to doubt that they’ll be able to find a happy ending, due to Anna’s position trapped... well... we don’t know where, exactly, and the mysterious obstacles, both supernatural and human, facing Cas every way he turns. Usually, the romantic bits are my least favorite elements of stories like these, but I found myself rooting for Cas and Anna a lot more than I expected to, and I was just as eager to save her as Cas was. The mystery of what really happened to Anna kept me on the edge of my seat, even as I was in suspense over the unfolding story of the athame and its surprising origins.
One of the things I love about both Anna Dressed In Blood and Girl of Nightmares is the repeated emphasis on Anna’s power, and her ability to draw upon that power to protect the people she loves. Despite the fact that she has given up the fight against the Obeahman, it doesn’t take much before she is ready to battle him alongside Cas, no matter the consequences. And, just as she needed him to help her in the first novel, he needs her help now. The way that their fates continue to be tangled together makes the connection between them so much more believable than many young adult romances, which are often built in such a short space of time, and it makes you root for them both even more.
Anna Dressed in Blood received a lot of praise and recognition from critics, but I feel like a lot of people missed out on catching the first book. I would highly recommend any fan of ghosts, horror, or action to pick up a copy—and if they, like me, already read and loved the first book, then Girl of Nightmares is the sequel they have been waiting for.
Kelsey Ann Barrett is a writer and a reader and a lover of fantastic horror. She lives in Brooklyn and studies at Drew University; you can follow her on Twitter and read her own supernatural horror story at Lightspeed Magazine.