Review: Guardian of the Dead

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. Little, Brown. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: Ellie Spencer, 17, literally runs into her crush Mark Nolan one day and he says two things that will change her world. “I like your laugh” and “do you know what you are?”

Ellie’s world at her Christchurch, New Zealand boarding school and had been safe and predictable: studying, hanging out with her best friend Kevin, neglecting her tae kwan do.

It’s not safe anymore. There is Mark Nolan, with his cryptic words and unexpected appearances; there is the beautiful and strange woman who takes an almost proprietary interest in Kevin; there is the Eyelasher murderer. Most dangers of all is Ellie’s growing suspicion that myth and magic are real — and deadly.

The Good: I love stories about the power of story, and the power of belief in story.

Guardian of the Dead begins as a boarding school story. Ellie, 17, left behind as her parents travel the world celebrating her mother’s remission from cancer, has distanced herself from her old friends (she chose a boarding school in Christchurch New Zealand far from her hometown in the North Island) and interests (Tae Kwan Do). Even her choice of best friend is safe: Kevin is popular and handsome, but is only interested in friendship. As Kevin brings a reluctant Ellie into his circle of friends, the reader would think, “oh, that’s what kind of story that is.”

Except the reader knows that Mark Nolan has told Ellie not to go out alone after dark — and she forgets the conversation, forgets he liked her laugh, only remembers (but doesn’t know why) that she’s not supposed to go out alone after dark. Well, that’s strange.

And it only gets stranger.

The action and plot of Guardian of the Dead is straightforward: the patupaiarehe, while long lived, are not immortal. A handful of the few remaining patupaiarehe decide to regain their lost immortality at the expense of thousands and thousand dead. Ellie and her friends are all that stand in the way of the patupaiarehe.

I love Ellie. Her isolation and loneliness, fueled by the emotional turmoil caused by her mother’s illness and now being the new girl at school, is raw and a believable. Ellie feels out of place, not just as the new girl, not just as a daughter whose family has suddenly shifted with her parents away, but also as someone unsure of herself. A significant part of Guardian of the Dead is about Ellie’s beginning to let other people in (Kevin, Mark, Kevin’s friend Iris) and become more comfortable with herself. Part of it is Ellie recovering emotionally from the family’s struggle with cancer, and that recovery is helped along  because Ellie discovers hidden truths about herself and her world that give her strength and purpose and meaning. The hidden truths are the discovery that myths and legends are real; because this takes place in New Zealand, it’s the mythos of the Maori that figure prominently in Guardian of the Dead. As Mark explains to Ellie, “they’re real places to the patupaiarehe. They make them real out of their belief. But if you go in and you don’t know what you’ll find, you could find yourself in any kind of place. You bring your own history, your own mythology with you.” And, as Mark’s initial reaction to Ellie shows (“do you know what you are“), Ellie’s involvement is more than a bystander who happens upon the unbelievable. Ellie’s knowledge of her place in the world of magic and belief.

The setting is New Zealand. My knowledge of New Zealand is mainly The Lord of the Rings and Heavenly Creatures. Healey does a terrific job of creating the world of New Zealand for someone who has never been there. One thing I wondered, if the copy published in New Zealand was as full of details about geography, history, and culture or if it was a there for the benefit of people like me. Healey provides a detailed afterward about the Maori mythology she uses in Guardian of the Dead. Those interested in her research process and use of cultural consultants in revising her story can read more at her blog.

3 thoughts on “Review: Guardian of the Dead

  1. I love love love this book! I loved the storytelling and mythic elements and the romance and was ready to move to NZ by the time I finished it.


  2. When a book can make you move to a place, even though the book has serial killers and deadly earthquakes? It’s a pretty awesome book. And I loved how there was no “…and then I got thin” for the main character. I can’t wait to read her next book!


  3. Sure, I’ve heard that this book is really good, and I bought it for our collection, but with one line, “I love stories about the power of story, and the power of belief in story” you’ve convinced me that I ought to read this myself!


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