Karen Healey

Allen and Unwin (2010)

ISBN: 9781741758801

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Robers, May 2010

I’ve been following Healey’s blog for the last couple of months, and was particularly caught by her post about the importance of New Zealand as the setting of her debut novel, Guardian of the Dead. The post came out of her frustration that overseas readers were referring to her and her book as Australian.

I read the book with this in mind, and I have to say that my first reaction was one big ‘what are you people, high?’ I can see why Healey was so outraged, as the book is not just rich in detail about its New Zealand setting, but the plot itself turns on the mythology and experience of that country.

The second thing that occurred to me was… wow. I really know almost nothing about New Zealand. And I mean nothing. Guardian of the Dead paints such a detailed picture of New Zealand culture, mythology and how they blend into the lives of modern New Zealanders, and… I’ve never seen this before. My entire pop culture experience of New Zealand consists of Hercules, Xena, Lord of the Rings, a couple of Margaret Mahy novels and that Worzel Gummidge series. I can’t help feeling deeply ashamed that this is a country so very close to my own, with so many overlapping ties, and I’ll bet there aren’t many 32 year old New Zealanders who don’t have a far more comprehensive understanding of Australia, our popular culture, and what it might be like to live here.

I loved the delicious mix of mythologies in this pacy, emotionally resonant YA paranormal novel. While Maori legend forms the largest part of the story’s influences, there was also an acknowledgement of world mythology as a whole, and how it works. I loved the connections made between stories and magic, and the idea that everyone has their own body of myths through which they see the world.

The firm distinction was made between Maori experience and Pakeha (non-Maori, white New Zealander) experience early on, which went a long way for me towards addressing the potentially problematic aspect of a white writer appropriating Maori legend for a work of fiction (bearing in mind of course that I am also white, and know nothing of New Zealand culture and what tensions may or may not exist there). It certainly felt to me as if the issues and stories were dealt with sensitively, and I came away with a keen interest in the ways that Maori culture and Pakeha culture seem to intersect. I want to read more about New Zealand now! What other books and authors are there?

The magic system of Guardian of the Dead is rather delicious, with a mixture of mythologies and a very dark edge to it of sacrifice, cost and necessary evil. There was more of a horror edge than I was expecting, including a serial killer plot and some very nasty magic, but this was balanced out by several awesome, genuine characters with whom it was genuinely pleasant to spend time. The story shifts from a simple ‘eternal creature tries to steal the heart of one human’ threat into deeper dangers and finally ramps up into an unexpectedly epic final act. Along the way there is also some serious exploration into the ethics of magic, and how far you could/should go in using your powers to make saving the world that little bit easier on yourself.

Then there’s Ellie. One of the elements of this book that most intrigued me coming into it was the fact that it had a fat heroine, one of those things we don’t see nearly enough of in YA fiction, or indeed fantasy fiction. Writing about body image through the eyes of your protagonist can be a tricky thing, especially with women and girls, as it’s perhaps one of the most problematic kinds of unreliable narration. Agonising about how fat they are is, after all, something we get from many fictional characters who are not actually particularly pudgy (yes, Stephanie Plum, I’m looking at you). Marianne of The Rotund wrote a really compelling post here where she discusses her visceral response to Ellie’s hatred of her own body, which hit home to me though I am very glad to say that I did not feel anything similar in reading Guardian of the Dead.

On the whole I really enjoyed Ellie’s relationship with her body, and the way it changed throughout the story. Her distaste at her own figure and the loss of confidence that struck her over the head at various moments felt very realistic, as did the moments when it didn’t affect her at all. I liked that she was a walking talking ball of contradictions, effortless in the confidence that came from her martial arts training, and yet was so very resistant to the idea that she might be considered attractive, despite the evidence from the story! On the whole, it seems to me that the author did a great job of putting herself in the shoes of someone who is used to her body holding her back, and used to making her body do exactly what she wants it to, and that yes, you can have both dynamics in the same character.

I also loved that the romantic relationship set up for Ellie in the story was with someone who also had issues with his body, that being he wasn’t entirely human, and that his self-consciousness (as well as, let’s face it, his issues) was actually worse than hers, so if she wanted to be kissed she damn well had to make the first move.

Guardian of the Dead is an exciting new novel from a YA author who we will want to be keeping a close eye on over the next few years – and it is actually like nothing I have ever read before, which isn’t something that I come across that often. Very much recommended!