Skip to main content

Guardian of the Dead

Review

Guardian of the Dead

Weary of werewolves? Think the vampire novel has been bled dry? Then GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD just might be your salvation. Karen Healey’s debut is set in New Zealand and centers on characters and situations inspired by the traditional Maori legends of her native New Zealand.

If 17-year-old Ellie Spencer is a little standoffish, she has some good excuses. She’s been sent to boarding school in Christchurch, New Zealand --- a world away from her home in the country’s North Island --- while her parents travel in the wake of Ellie’s mother’s recovery from breast cancer. Ellie has made one good friend, Kevin, but she is still a little lonely and overwhelmed by boarding school life.

Ellie, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, is recruited to do fight choreography for the local college’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At first she resists, especially since the show is being directed by Kevin’s friend Iris, a gorgeous, thin, confident young woman with beautiful clothes. Ellie can’t help but compare herself to Iris --- and constantly come up short. But she quickly rises to her new leadership role in the production and genuinely enjoys contributing her expertise to the show.

Ellie might soon feel like the fight scenes are under control, but there are still a lot of weird things happening, both among the cast and back at her school. Reka, the intense, eccentric redhead playing Titania, shuns everyone in the production except Kevin, who claims to have an allergy to the smell of cooked food…and sometimes appears to have no pupils in her eyes. Back at school, charismatic bad boy Mark soon has Ellie under his spell --- perhaps literally.

In her first novel, Healey creates a strong, believable heroine with a realistic teen’s voice and a teen’s obsessions and desires. To American readers, Ellie’s world will seem both familiar and foreign --- the boarding school atmosphere offers one level of displacement from most readers’ worlds, the distant geographic setting another. Healey also effectively captures the complicated, sometimes conflicting feelings Ellie has toward Kevin, Iris, Reka, and Mark. All of these elements would be convincing and sufficiently interesting even without the supernatural plot.

Although Healey introduces a strand of suspense almost from the beginning of the novel, a mysterious itinerant killer nicknamed the Eyelasher has New Zealanders living in fear. The escalation of the suspenseful, supernatural elements can seem a bit jarring when it happens, especially given the casual, almost humorous tone that characterizes Ellie’s daily life. The Maori mythology that underpins Healey’s depiction of otherworldly beings, however, is markedly different from the countless, more conventional Western demons currently populating young adult novels. Structurally, Healey helps familiarize her mythology by placing it in the context of the production of Shakespeare’s comedy. In the play, strange, magical things happen when lovers leave the city and venture into the forest. In Healey’s Christchurch, much the same thing happens, but the woods are deeper and the elements much, much darker.

   -

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

Guardian of the Dead
by Karen Healey

  • Publication Date: April 1, 2010
  • Genres: Urban Fantasy
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 031604430X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316044301