Sunday, March 6, 2011

Guardian of the Dead

It's late and I'm trying to squeeze in a blog post before it gets too much later, but I wanted to write about this book before I have to return it.  I once again have a bunch of overdue books or books coming due in the next week, so I've got to get reading!

Guardian of the Dead was on the William C. Morris YA Debut Award shortlist this year, so it went on my reading list.  I had read a review of the book a few months ago, when I was still ordering books for the library, and it seemed intriguing.  It begins in a boarding school, and I am a total sucker for boarding school books.  The book also takes place on New Zealand, and the information about Maori culture and society brings a new life to supernatural fiction.

Ellie is at boarding school because her parents are on a year-long trip.  She is asked by a friend to help out in a nearby production of "A Midsummer's Night Dream" because she has tae kwon do experience and can help with the fight scenes.  It is through this play that she begins to become aware that some things around her are not adding up.  There's a mysterious boy who keeps confusing her, a woman without pupils, and a serial killer who is stealing people's eyes.

Her connection with the mysterious boy, Mark, becomes deeper as more of her own latent power is awakened.  This connects her as well to the world Mark represents - the world on the other side.  The biggest threat to this world comes from the patupaiarehe - beings who live in the mists around the island and are yearning to become immortal.  But if they gain immortality, it will threaten to bring destruction to all of New Zealand.

I felt like this book was unique in several ways.  First of all, the introduction to Maori culture and mythology is something that American readers don't have exposure to.  But Healey does a terrific job of giving the context to the unfamiliar language and cultural norms.  There is also a brief glossary of Maori terms that are used throughout New Zealand so that readers can refer to it - even non-Maori speakers use these terms regularly.   This book is strongly rooted in Maori mythology, but Healey draws parallels between Maori, Greek and Roman mythologies.  Ellie is a Classics student, so she explains the parallels to readers in a natural way.

Above all, this book is a suspenseful adventure.  It is complex, with many layers of story and characters.  And most importantly for me, it is intelligent.  I am not a big fan of supernatural fiction, so the addition of smart characters who are not afraid to be smart makes the supernatural more palatable.  Ellie is not the sort of female main character who will dither and wring her hands.  She's scared and unsure at times, but she is also exploring her power and trying to find her way through what is rapidly becoming a nightmare.

This is a really strong, smart book - I recommend it to you!

Guardian of the Dead.  Karen Healey.  Little, Brown and Co., 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

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