“Guardian of the Dead” by Karen Healey

02 Dec


I got an advanced copy of "Guardian of the Dead" in the mail from the good people at Little, Brown Books. Thank you! Aside from being taken by the rad cover, which features a spooky mask, I'm not sure I ever would have picked up this Maori mythology-laden story set in New Zealand. I'm so glad I did, because I think "Guardian of the Dead" is a winner on every level — it's a smart, fast-paced, wholly unique action / fantasy / romance hybrid. It is, literally, like no teen book I've read before.

I don't want to give too much of the plot away — there are plot points to spoil, I tell you! — so, I'll attempt only a broad outline. Ellie Spencer, a no-nonsense girl with an asexual best friend, is our heroine here. She's a teen attending boarding school in the southern part of New Zealand while her parents are on a world tour. Ellie is a plain, large girl. I don't mean obese or even fat; she's just big, both tall and solid. I loved how author Karen Healey described Ellie's embarrassment at taking up so much space in the world. Even better, I loved how Ellie's size eventually made her into a powerful force.

Ellie is smitten with secretive redhead Mark, a classmate in her Classics course. Mark starts randomly appearing everywhere in Ellie's life and, afterward, works some sort of mojo on her that causes confusion and forgetfulness. Meanwhile, Ellie is reluctantly helping best pal Kevin with a play at the local college (she's got a martial arts background and will assist with blocking the action scenes). Ellie immediately dislikes the lead actress, the cold, regal Reka, and not just because Reka easily charms the once uncharmable Kevin with, you guessed it, some sort of mojo. Reka seems to appear and disappear at will, kind of like the elusive Mark, and despite her exotic beauty, she's definitely weird — she sickens at the smell of cooked meat! When Ellie encounters Reka and Mark in a misty woods one evening, everything she knows, including the believability of ancient myths, changes.

There's also a powerful mask that gives Ellie godlike powers; loads of Maori legends about birth, love, and death; an awesome secondary character in the spunky play director Iris; otherworldly allies and foes; a climactic battle; and an interesting, hopeful romance. I never would have thought these elements would mesh so well, but author Healey makes it all flow together beautifully. The legends, the teen attraction, the temptation to use forbidden power, the strange setting … it fits. I especially loved that Ellie isn't one of those spunky, sarcastic, too smart for the room girls who seem to live in every teen novel lately. She's brave, smart, and tough but also self-conscious, angry, and occasionally irrational.

I'm probably not doing this wonderful book justice, but, truly, it's one of the best I've read in a long time. Parts of this book reminded me of Neil Gaiman at his "American Gods" finest, which is high praise indeed! If nothing else, read it to learn more about New Zealand and the rich stories and history of the Maori people. There's some mild language here, so I'd say the audience is upper middle school. "Guardian of the Dead" comes out in April. Look for it then!

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Posted by on December 2, 2009 in Uncategorized


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