Sub-genre: Contemporary, YA
Rating: 4 pints of blood
The cover here is really striking, with a sense of forboding. The white mask plays an important role in the novel, and is actually depicted as described, so points to the art department for that. I like the way the mask plays such a stark contrast against the dark woods, and then the red letters of the title loom over everything. The genre shorthand here is successful (the image screams "dark fantasy"), and the cover is distinct enough to draw attention. Ok, I'm not quite tempted to frame the cover and hang it on my wall, but I do think this is the kind of cover where if I saw it in the bookstore, I'd have to pick it up to see what the story was about, which means the art has clearly done its job.
Alright, to be entirely fair here I've got to come clean. I've been a fan of Karen Healey's for quite some time, although this is her debut novel. For years I read an enjoyed her (now archived) blog Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed), a feminist look at superhero comic books. The blog is intelligent, insightful, and at times hilarious. I was really sad when she stopped updating it, but positively giddy when I found out she was writing a novel. A fantasy novel. And since I knew Karen to be intelligent, insightful, and at times hilarious, I approached the book with certain expectations. I wanted to love this novel, to have as much respect for Healey as a novelist as I did for her as a blogger. So how did that work out? Well, as this is a review, I'm pretty sure you should be able to work that out just by reading on.
Ellie has the normal types of worries for a seventeen-year-old girl, fretting about things like her lack of popularity, her weight issues, and getting away with breaking school rules. She's supportive of her friends, even when it means she gets roped into helping out with the school play, and she has a huge crush on Mark, her mysterious and gorgeous classmate.
When she literally bumps into Mark one day, everything changes, but not in the way she might have daydreamed about. After running into him, Ellie starts noticing weird things all around her, especially anywhere Mark is concerned. Because Mark's not quite normal, and the collision has opened Ellie's eyes to an entire world full of myths and stories come to life.
Guardian of the Dead is not like anything you've ever read. Yes, it's a dark fantasy novel in a contemporary setting with teenage protagonists, and those books are overpopulating the world at present, but there's not a whiff of European monsters in here. The mythology she uses is Māori and incredibly well researched (complete with an afterword and a glossary at the end of the book). The heroine is uncomfortably overweight, and remains so even after the end of the novel. Nobody "fixes" it, either by magic or by instilling self-confidence in her from an outside source. Ellie's best friend Kevin is asexual and just coming out to his closest friends in the beginning of the book, and it's never treated as a quirk or a gimmick. The whole thing is set in New Zealand, where Healey herself hails from.
The characters and relationships here are so diverse and complex, they're wonderfully realistic and clearly one of Healey's strengths. I would have been happy just to read a novel about the interactions between Ellie, Kevin, his friend Iris (for whom Ellie and her inferiority complex hold a jealous resentment) and Ellie's crush Mark. That is, actually, a large part of the first half of the book, combined with the slow mystery of what exactly Mark is hiding and the minor supernatural aspects just beginning to poke out.
In the second part, the supernatural aspects start to get bigger and we shift from the story of a girl in school dealing with normal things like friends and teenage emotions to a more epic "save the world" kind of plotline. The mythology Healey's drawn from is fresh and full of vivid imagery and the stakes are personal enough to reasonably motivate a scared teen, but in spite of the continuation of seemingly discarded plotlines or expanding on the occasional throwaway line from much earlier in the book, I felt like I was reading an entirely different story. It may have been simply because everything changed so much in scope, or it may have been because Ellie is no longer surrounded by the fascinating cast of secondary characters, but the second part of the book just didn't grab me and speak to me the way the first part did.
That being said, this is still very much a book worth looking at, even if it's only to meet the wonderful characters. It is, in fact, going on my shelf so I can re-read it later, because while I enjoyed some parts more than others, even my least favourite parts were well written and full of real emotion.
Guardian of the Dead is available in hardcover and will be released in mass market paperback in August.