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REVIEW:  Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake

REVIEW: Girl of Nightmares by Kendare Blake

Dear Ms. Blake,

Last year I read your debut, Anna Dressed in Blood. I loved it. It was a creepy ghost story about a ghost hunter on a mission to track down a violent, bloodthirsty ghost but ends up falling in love with her instead. Sometimes I think the urban fantasy subgenre has made us forget that its supernatural denizens can be very scary. Anna, the titular ghost, while a tragic figure, never let us readers forget the threat she posed. There were some surprisingly gory scenes in that novel, and I think calling it a horror novel rather than an urban fantasy is more accurate. It wasn’t a book for everyone but for those of us who miss the scares and thrills of darker fiction, it was a welcome change. So after such an auspicious beginning, I looked forward to your follow-up.
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Anna Dressed in Blood, we met Cas — a ghost killer who bounced from place to place, tracking down ghosts and killing them. You could say it runs in the family. We also meet Anna Dressed in Blood, a murderous ghost named so because the white dress she died in is stained with the blood of the people she killed in her afterlife. At the end of that novel, Anna saves Cas’s life but at the cost of her own soul.

Girl of Nightmares opens several months later. Despite being done with the job that brought him to town, Cas hasn’t left. It’s out of character but a part of him can’t bear to leave the place where he met Anna. To say he’s obsessing over her is an understatement. His friends, Thomas and Carmel, constantly try to take his mind off things but to no avail. He just can’t forget her.

Then he starts having nightmares about her and seeing her everywhere. This should be impossible because logic dictates that she’s on the other side. But soon Cas realizes that Anna is in hell. Some people would say this is what she deserves. Even though she operated under a curse, Anna killed a lot of people. But Cas can’t leave her there and soon his obsession turns to a fervent desire to bring her back. And he’ll do anything — and ally himself with anyone — to make that wish come true.

I’m not sure if it’s just me but I found this to be a very different read from Anna Dressed in Blood. I fell in love with the creepiness of the first book. I wanted more of that here. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get it.

Anna’s presence in the first book really made it for me. She was a powerful force. While it suited the storyline here, it was a little depressing to see her relegated to a damsel in distress role. She became an object for Cas to rescue and what flashes of creepiness we did see stemmed from her various tortures in hell. I can’t say that really sat well with me.

I was also confused by the supporting characters’ reactions to Cas and his obsession over Anna. When he starts seeing Anna everywhere, it seemed to me that most of them assumed he was crazy and simply hallucinating. I realize that bringing him to a therapist may not have been optimal, given the nature of Cas’s job. What would he say to them? “Oh, I think the ghost I came here to kill is haunting me?” That’s not going to go well. But when he makes it clear that he wants to bring Anna back, there’s a whole lot of You’re messing with forces you don’t understand and Stop what you’re doing now, which suggests they don’t think he’s crazy at all and that something bad is about to go down.

Which brings us to my pet peeve. If the so-called experts of the story know something bad is going to go down — and that Cas and Anna are at the center of it — why would you not actually bother to share that information with the interested parties? That is stupidity. It’s also withholding information for the sake of withholding information for no good reason other than to artificially manufacture narrative suspense and tension.

About halfway through the book, Girl of Nightmares goes in a new direction. It involves Cas’s bloodline and the legacy of the athame he uses to kill ghosts. Let’s just say there are druids, secret societies, magic rituals, and dimension hopping. I understand the need to expand the world, especially if the goal is to sustain a series-long conflict, but this is not what I signed up for. The more we delved into the background and history of Cas’s family and his weapon, the less excited I became about where the story was headed. To say I was disappointed is an understatement.

I think many readers will be excited about this development. It does expand the world and provides enough fodder to sustain a series. But I originally signed up for a book about a ghost killer and the ghosts he hunts down. I did not come aboard to learn about a secret society of druids and their sacred ghost-killing warrior and his mystical weapon. I guess it takes the creepy charm out of it and that was what I was here for. I also think that storyline overshadowed the emotional punchline, which was Cas’s obsession with Anna, who is already dead, and his inability to let go. Given the way things panned out, I’m not sure I’m on board for another book set in this world. I guess we’ll have to wait and see. C

My regards,
Jia

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REVIEW: Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

REVIEW: Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

Dear Ms. Gould,

I love stories that feature relationships between female relatives, especially sisters and cousins close in age. I also love the idea of an all-female secret society that controls the world from the shadows. So when I saw that your novel combined the two, I snatched it up with excitement. Unfortunately, I discovered that might have been premature.

Cross-My-Heart-by-Sasha-GouldLaura della Scala is the younger of two sisters. Because her overambitious father didn’t want to pay two dowries when it came time for his daughters to marry, she was sent to the convent. Then one day, she’s taken from the convent by her father without explanation. Though confused, she’s excited by the news. At last she can be reunited with her beloved sister, Beatrice.

But it’s not to be. Upon arriving home, she learns the truth. Beatrice drowned under mysterious circumstances. Everyone claims it was an accident but Laura doesn’t buy it. Beatrice was a strong swimmer so the chances of her drowning in a Venetian canal are low. Worse yet, to cement his social status, Laura’s father intends to have her take Beatrice’s place and marry her fiancé, Vincenzo. Laura is fine with the idea until she meets Vicenzo. Instead of the handsome, nice man she pictured, she discovers he’s a disagreeable, old lecher.

Laura will do anything to get out of the marriage. She gets her chance when she’s contacted by the Segreta, a mysterious group of women who pull the strings of Venetian society. In exchange for their help, they only ask a secret in return. But once Laura’s inducted into their ranks, she discovers everything has a price. And more importantly, the person responsible for her sister’s death is closer than she thinks.

I initially had a lot of sympathy for Laura. She lost her beloved sister. She’s treated like a pawn by her father – shunted off to the convent when she’s not necessary and then yanked back when she is. She has to marry a creepy old man. For the past few years she’s lived in a convent and as a result doesn’t understand the ins and outs of Venetian society. I even can excuse her assuming that Beatrice’s fiancé was a kind, handsome one. That’s the romantic fantasy of an immature girl kept in the dark. This set-up is geared to stir sympathy.

But when given the opportunity to escape that marriage, the Segreta make very clear what the terms of their helping her are. If she wants their help, she has to join them. And if she wants to join them, she must offer up a precious (political) secret. Laura does this.

So why does she expect them not to make good on their agreement? After she’s free of Vincenzo, she tells them she wants nothing to do with them. Anyone with brains knows how well that’s going to go over. As this behavior continues on throughout the book, my sympathy for her began to erode. I can understand not being savvy in political intrigue – she spent a few years sequestered in a convent — but there comes a point when a self-preservation instinct must kick in. That never happened.

I thought that as the book continued, the plot began to ravel. Instead of many storylines woven together, we hopped from one subplot to another. There’s the Segreta. There’s her sister’s murder. There’s her romance with a young artist. If the transitions between one plotline to the next had been smoother, it probably would have been fine. But it seemed like we jumped from one to another at random moments, as if that specific storyline had been forgotten until that very moment. Because of this, it read choppy and disjointed.

While I loved the idea of a teenage girl trying to find her sister’s killer, I was disappointed to discover there were few positive relationships between women in this book. Laura obviously had a deep bond with her sister, and she was also close to her maid. Other than that? She’s at odds with the Segreta as a whole and the specific women who make up the group. Her relationship with the two friends are superficial and catty. I especially disliked how the climax hinged on a woman backstabbing another woman for a guy. Really? This book has a premise that hinges on female relationships, so why does Laura not have any?

And then there’s the romance with the young artist. I admit I was bored by it and when another subplot emerged in the second half of the book, his true identity became painfully obvious. This was also true of the killer’s identity. And once I figured out who killed Beatrice, I just wanted the book to be over.

Based on the premise and ideas, I can tell there’s a great story somewhere in this book. The potential is high. But the execution just didn’t work for me. Despite the prominent mention of the Segreta, they didn’t play a major role at all and that left me feeling cheated. The various subplots didn’t come together strongly enough. And the ending was so neat and pat, there might as well have been a bow tied around it. C-

My regards,

Jia

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