Guardian of the Dead

By Karen Healey [LibraryThingGoodreads]

High school student Ellie’s life is fairly normal, until she agrees to help out with a play at the local university, thanks to the urging of her best friend, Kevin. But someone else in the play has her sights set on Kevin – someone not quite human – and suddenly Ellie finds herself navigating the world of the New Zealand supernatural armed only with a magic mask and the help of the mysterious Mark (on whom Ellie just happens to have an enormous crush). As Ellie discovers that the mythology of her homeland is all too real, she finds that that selfsame mythology is threatening to destroy New Zealand – and that she may be the only person left who can stop it.

(Full disclosure: Karen is actually a friend of mine. I shall do my best to review without bias!)

There are two striking things about this book that set it apart from 99% of the YA fantasy lit out there. One is, of course, the setting. Guardian of the Dead isn’t just set in Karen’s native New Zealand; New Zealand informs everything about the book – the culture and geography, of course, but more importantly the magic. No tired dragons or vampires here – the fantasy element in Guardian takes the form of beautiful, terrifying, fairy-like patupaiarehe and powerful, sea-serpentine taniwha, and creation myths star Māui and Hine-nui-te-po instead of Zeus or Odin. Everything is carefully explained for the benefit of clueless readers like yours truly, but the explanations are smoothly integrated into the plot (and there’s a helpful note from the author at the end for further clarification). While this may feel info-dumpy to people familiar with Māori mythology, it was all fresh and fascinating to me.

The other aspect of the book that really struck me was its determined inclusiveness. The cast is remarkably diverse: Ellie, being white, is distinctly in the minority, though there are mixed-race characters who “pass.” Kevin is of Māori descent; Ellie’s sort-of friend Iris is of Chinese descent; Ellie’s favorite teacher is black; and the ranks of minor characters are filled with people of varying ethnicities. And it’s not glossed over; race is something Ellie thinks about and is careful to be politically correct about, and the different cultures she interacts with have a direct bearing on her life, in both mundane and extraordinary ways. Furthermore, Kevin is asexual, marking the first time I’ve seen an explicitly asexual character in a YA novel, and Ellie’s older sister (who doesn’t appear in the book) is gay. It shouldn’t be so remarkable that this book represents the diversity of real life in a way that most literature – hell, most media, full stop – doesn’t do, but it is, and Guardian should be commended for being inclusive without ever taking away from the narrative.

Aside from that, the book is just really good. Ellie is believably teenage, self-conscious and uncomfortable in her own skin, but simultaneously extremely self-reliant and unafraid to stand up for herself or speak her mind, a difficult balancing act for a protagonist. Her romance with Mark had me almost embarrassingly hooked, cooing over all their little moments together and hoping for a happy ending. Her developing friendship with Iris, and Iris in general, really pleased me, since I love to see narratives of female friendship handled well. And the fantasy adventure itself is exciting and very, very scary, scenes of sheer horror bursting through a general ominous storm cloud of something wicked this way coming.

My only quibble is with the somewhat odd pacing of the book. For the entire first half, the terrifying villain is Reka, a patupaiarehe woman. Then, abruptly, we discover that all of the patupaiarehe are trying to destroy New Zealand, but Reka’s okay. We’re suddenly left without a face to latch onto as regards the patupaiarehe threat, but at the same time introduced to Mr. Sand, a thoroughly creepy sort of vampire of magic who serves as an excellent villain for the rest of the book…except he has nothing to do with the patupaiarehe. If Mr. Sand had been introduced earlier, or the patupaiarehe given more specificity instead of being just a big scary something, it would have eased the transition from the first half to the second; as it is, they feel somewhat disjointed.

That said, Guardian of the Dead is still an exciting, scary, fun read, and I enjoyed it very much. It gets four and a half cupcakes, and I’m off to go bug Karen about letting me read her next book. Wish me luck!

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    One Response to “Guardian of the Dead”

    1. […] petty or cruel, they still read as decent, complicated people. As with Karen’s previous book, Guardian of the Dead, The Shattering is consciously diverse and explicitly addresses issues of race, gender, and […]

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