Author: Karen Healey
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Publisher: Little, Brown (US & UK)
Publication Date: April 2010 (US) / May 2010 (UK)
Hardcover: 352 pages
“You’re Ellie Spencer.”
I opened my mouth, just as he added, “And your eyes are opening.”
Seventeen-year-old Ellie Spencer is just like any other teenager at her boarding school. She hangs out with her best friend Kevin, she obsesses over Mark, a cute and mysterious bad boy, and her biggest worry is her paper deadline.
But then everything changes. The news headlines are all abuzz about a local string of serial killings that all share the same morbid trademark: the victims were discovered with their eyes missing. Then a beautiful yet eerie woman enters Ellie’s circle of friends and develops an unhealthy fascination with Kevin, and a crazed old man grabs Ellie in a public square and shoves a tattered Bible into her hands, exclaiming, “You need it. It will save your soul.” Soon, Ellie finds herself plunged into a haunting world of vengeful fairies, Maori mythology, romance, betrayal, and an epic battle for immortality.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone.
How did we get this book: Review Copy from the Author & Publisher
Why did we read this book: We became interested in the book as soon as we heard it existed. When we were offered review copies, we naturally jumped at the opportunity.
Ana: Wow. WOW . I could not be more in love with this novel . The writing, the characters, the mythologies, the ideas behind the plotting and characterisation, everything is just as I like and hope whenever I open a book. I knew I was reading something different and unique even, when the heroine beats the shit out of the “hero” so that she can protect her best friend. Superb, just superb and I can hardly believe this is a debut work.
Thea: What Ana said. Seriously, Guardian of the Dead is a fresh, original, unconventional debut novel from a promising new author. The blending of western civ classics and Maori mythology completely won me over – in addition to the solid plotting, evenhanded writing, and truly awesome characters. Heroine Ellie Spencer – decidedly anything BUT another bland vanilla doormat – kicks ass. I loved this book.
On the plot:
Ana: Ellie Spencer is a normal teenager who is attending boarding school as her parents travel the world in celebration of her mother’s recovery from Cancer. She hangs out with her best friend Kevin, she sometimes drinks herself to stupor, dreams about hot guys and wonders about what her future will hold – perhaps studying Classics at university. Then, one day she bumps into Mark Nolan, the mysterious, loner, hawt guy du jour, and unbeknownst to her, he accidentally awakens Ellie’s magic because you see… Mark is not really human. At first, this awakening is muddy because Mark tries to mess with her memory but Ellie struggles to find her footing. Then she realises that Kevin might be in danger after a new girl joins their theatre group. At the same time, a serial killer is on the loose and the crimes might be connected to Mark and the woman, and in turn all may be connected with a plot to destroy New Zealand as creatures from Maori Mythology in search of immortality come to life before Ellie’s eyes.
The plot with its many twists, conflict (internal and external) and supremely interesting world full of creatures out of Maori mythology is incredible and interesting. The author never shies away from consequences that might even include death, heartbreak and mayhem.
But regardless of where the plot goes (and the ending is awesome and bittersweet and so very fitting), the importance of the book lies in the journey to get there. Not only because it features a great story in itself but because the idea is that myths matter as long as there are people who believe in them. The premise is not necessarily new, it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and how in that book Gods are living beings who are directly as powerful as the faith placed in them. In Guardian of the Dead myths are too, alive and well. There is a great scene in which Ellie looks at the moon and she sees it being inhabited by a Maori legend only to later on, look at it again and see it in a different light as she recalls a different story. It means that stories are evolving according to each person. This idea is expertly handled by the author in one of the most excellent, spellbinding endings ever. It combines not only the Maori mythology prevalent in the story but also Greek Mythology because that is what interests Ellie as well. The combination of both and “how” and the “why” and “which” Greek myth was brought forward caused me a geek-gasm and it made me cry with delight (and a bit of sadness too).
Thea: I have to completely agree with Ana here – from a plotting, writing, and world-building perspective, Guardian of the Dead is pretty damn near flawless. At surface level, the plot feels similar to many other YA supernatural novels on the market right now – young girl meets hot supernatural dude, drama (and Mortal!Peril!) ensues. But this feeling of familiarity is only skin deep, as Guardian of the Dead traverses a unique mythological landscape, and manages to twist this common YA plot premise into something much grittier and substantive.
I have to wholeheartedly agree with what Ana said – Guardian of the Dead did remind me a lot of works like American Gods and even a little Peter Pan (and don’t kill me, but I also couldn’t help thinking of The Skeleton Key – yeaaaah, the horror movie) – belief is a powerful, powerful thing, and I loved the concept that a person can shape and perceive of magic in the world around them based on their own system of beliefs. As it happens, Ellie believes in the Maori creation myth, is a huge Classics buff (with emphasis on Greek mythology), and likes comics – a heady combination, indeed.
I also appreciated Ms. Healey’s storytelling ability with this debut novel as the pacing is excellent, balancing action and character development effortlessly. My only qualm, writing-wise, is a very slight tendency toward the info-dump. For the most part, information is passed to the reader in a believable and palatable manner, but there are occasions that felt a little forced – for example, when Mark is going to explain to Ellie and Iris exactly what is going on, he sits them down and relates the Maori creation myth which, even according to Ellie, every New Zealander has grown up with. Of course, we readers have most likely never heard the myth before, so it’s great and convenient to read – it just doesn’t quite fit and make sense for Mark to be telling this story to two knowledgeable native New Zealanders. Minor, minor stuff like that.
On The characters:
Ana: With regards to the characters: Ellie, Ellie, Ellie. I am in love. She is not the usual YA heroine, starting with the looks: she is fat, plain and pimply and yes, there are moments where she wonders if her appearance is a problem but most of the time she is ok with it. As is everybody else – no one tries to tell her that she is not fat or that she is indeed beautiful, they just accept her as she is and what she is, is awesome. Mark, her romantic interest, never claims that she is beautiful but he likes her for what and who she is and again: awesome. He finds her amazing because she looks good to him, because she is strong and compassionate and because she kicks-ass – even his ass . Yes, she does. So many times YA heroines are bland excuses for girls who disappear in front of a strong male lead – many times even, the aforementioned hero is mysterious and does despicable things and all the heroine will do is swoon and moon over and create excuses for his behaviour (Nora from Hush, Hush I am looking at you)
Not Ellie, she is not only the opposite of the Blank Page Heroine (tm Sarah Rees Brennan) , she also has opinions and loyalties. For example, when she thinks that Mark is keeping things away from her that might be endangering Kevin? She beats him up. I repeat, she beats him up to make him talk. Ok, usually I am a pacifist but the fact that she is willing to go that far to protect those that she loves, even if what she does is against someone she is falling in love with? Amazing and it earns a huge amount of respect from me.
Speaking of respect. The author touches some complicated issues and addresses them with the respect they reserve. Kevin, possibly the hottest guy around is asexual – and that’s who he is. No one tries to make him change his mind, nor does he find out that OMG he is all of a sudden full of sexual drive. He is what he is. Similarly another character tries to get on with Ellie, they kiss and then she changes her mind and says “no” to something more. That character ends up being pushy and nasty and never once does Ellie or any other character try to make a lame excuse for the guy. He is a sleaze ball and that’s it. No means no in this world. Again, I turn back to Hush, Hush as an example: the heroine’s best friend excuses a guy’s aggressive sexual behaviour by saying that he was “only drunk”. NO. NO. That is not right. (But let me move on before I give myself an aneurysm)
Another sign of respect: Ellie might be the protagonist, someone who has a black-belt in Tae Kwon Do and kicks ass and is steadfast and loyal and does a lot of saving. But she is not a flawless character. That is exemplified by her relationship with a magical mask she finds – once she wears the mask everybody obeys and loves her and that is strong temptation, yo. Plus the way she reacts to some things is just…perfect. She sees a monster and she wants to puke.
Seriously, I could not love Ellie more.
Thea: Ellie is the biggest strength of this book (no pun intended) – I loved her from the very start. I loved that Ellie is NOT one of the usual bland pretty (but not gorgeous), slender, everygirl type of heroine. She is by her own admission fat, tall, strong, and not delicate or beautiful in the slightest. BUT she does have a wicked sense of humor, a sharp mind, and she’s incredibly loyal and a great friend. I LOVE that she has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do – and I loved the Ms. Healey has done her homework and doesn’t make Ellie some Chuck Norris style badass. I mean, Ellie IS a badass, but she believably shows restraint in using her skills (unless the situation demands it). And yes, as Ana says above, Ellie is by no means flawless – she faces her own demons in this book, and Ms. Healey handles Ellie and her choices perfectly.
The secondary characters shine less brightly than Ellie, but are still strong and fleshed-out. I loved best friend Kevin and his own unique affliction (asexuality is real, and I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen it in a character in fiction – certainly the first time I’ve seen it in a YA novel!) – his relationship with Ellie is a wonderful thing. Mark, Ellie’s love interest, is a bit more mundane (in the YA UF sense of the word – in that we’ve seen the tortured, gorgeous, supernatural boy who has his heart set on distancing himself from his heritage), but he’s emotionally connected in such a way that you can’t help but care for the kid. He’s definitely a worthy match for Ellie’s awesomeness, and I loved how their relationship…changes over the course of the book.
Ana: If it is not clear enough, I will spell it for you: I L-O-V-E-D this book. One of the best debuts I have ever read. Guardian of the Dead swept me off my feet and its heroine has become one of my all-time favourites. I LOVED it. I would not be surprised if the book made my top 10 list this year. I highly recommend you to buy it, read it, sing it!
Thea: What Ana said! I loved Guardian of the Dead for its wonderful protagonist, its seamless blending of mythologies, and its expert plotting. Karen Healey is an author to look out for – and I, for one, cannot wait to read what she does next.
Notable Quotes/Parts: The final sequence and battle starting on a beach finishing with a Walk are amazing standouts. For more on Guardian of the Dead, check out the extras author Karen Healey has on her website: Mansfield College (the fictional school that Ellie, Mark and Kevin attend), and an awesome replica of Mark’s charm bracelet from the book.
Additional Thoughts: Make sure to check our interview with Karen for more on Guardian of the Dead!
Ana: 8 – Excellent and leaning towards a 9
Thea: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan