Renee Reviews: Karen Healey's - "Guardian of the Dead"

Seventeen-year-old Ellie Spencer 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.”

Chance is a funny, funny thing. If I had never watched once particular book haul video a few years back, I would quite likely have never known of this novel’s existence. But now, having read both of Karen Healey’s YA titles, I can safely say that her writing has come to mean something quite definitive for me: originality. While her debut, Guardian of the Dead appears to contain many of the expected trappings of a paranormal romance – complete with a ‘typical’ heroine who has secret powers, a gorgeous yet mysterious love interest, and a high school backdrop – it actually manages to surprise you on many occasions.

Most notably, this novel is set in New Zealand and is adorned with varying elements of Maori mythology throughout – so much so that there is a (much-appreciated!) glossary of terms included. This lends some of the more traditional supernatural aspects, such as fae involvement and magic, an altogether different, exotic flavour, and I personally think it makes for a fantastic introduction to Maori culture, especially for international readers.

Plot-wise, the novel does seem to follow the much-trodden path of girl at school – sudden strange happenings – girl suspects boy of magic – all hell breaks loose. However, what truly sets these events apart is the atmosphere depicted and the characters involved.

The lush, dense wilderness of New Zealand’s north island is given ample attention despite much of the narrative’s action occurring in and around a high school. Healey describes the natural world with evocative flare, which certainly aids in the unsettling, unnatural events that occur within it.

The novel’s protagonist, Ellie Spencer is many, many things that your typical YA heroine is not: she has a black-belt in karate, she has an asexual male best friend, she is half-Maori, she is slightly overweight, and she is angry. Really, really angry. While her abrasive personality and tendency to whine is most likely a major deterrent for many readers, it was oddly one of the things I appreciated most about Guardian of the Dead. For all of her flaws, Ellie seemed to me always believable and still, a year on from reading the book, remains memorable.

I do wish that more people could encounter Karen Healey’s works, if only for a slight, refreshing change from the standard fare of YA paranormal. We really do need more works that embrace cultural and sexual diversity, innovative mythology and which also aren’t afraid to end things on a relatively sombre, bittersweet note. I am very thankful to have watched that book haul video back in 2010!

Guardian of the Dead – Karen Healey

Allen and Unwin Australiamore details…

ISBN – 031604430X

346 pages

April 1st, 2010

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