GUARDIAN OF THE DEAD by Karen Healey

Guardian of the Dead
Karen Healey
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ISBN-10: 031604430X

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Karen Healey’s Guardian of the Dead managed the difficult task of completely blowing away my expectations after just fourteen pages. It’s no secret that a lot of young adult fiction has fallen into a depressingly familiar rut, nor could it be argued with any great conviction that it represents an open space for diversity in publishing.  Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that Guardian of the Dead features (in order of appearance): a non-American setting (New Zealand), an overweight main character, not just one but several non-white supporting characters, a genuinely asexual best friend whose asexuality is treated like a real-life issue rather than something to be gawked at, and  mythological underpinnings with nary a Greek or Roman deity in sight.

It helps, too, that the novel completely eschews the groan-inducing girl-meets-hot-guy, hot-guy-turns-out-to-be-a-vapid-supernatural-something plot structure that we’ve seen repeated ad nauseum in so much paranormal YA. The characters in Guardian of the Dead are people first and foremost, even when they happen to be only half human, and Healey effortlessly builds up a complicated web of relationships between them. Ellie, the protagonist, is instantly likeable, all the more so because she’s a refreshingly honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a teenager. She drinks, regrets it after the fact, and then does it again once the hangover has worn off; she agrees to go on a date (which she insists is not a date) with a college student whose girlfriend she knows and likes; she openly harbours a crush on the potentially-supernatural Mark Nolan and is entirely honest about her own feelings towards him.

It’s hard to describe just how refreshing all of this is after reading so much overblown romance in YA. Ellie is also the exact opposite of the many meek and helpless female protagonists out there. She’s a black belt in tae kwon do, for one thing, and her tolerance for BS is about as low as it could be. She may be plagued by the kinds of emotional insecurities that all teenagers face in one form or another, but she’s certainly not weak – mentally or physically.

As a story of a group of adolescent friends, Guardian of the Dead works beautifully. Unfortunately, it’s slightly less effective as urban fantasy. The Māori-inspired mythology is, as I’ve said, a welcome break from the usual Greco-Roman standbys, although I won’t presume to vouch for its authenticity. But the way Healey doles out exposition to the reader is a major impediment to enjoyment, particularly in the novel’s early stages. Ellie agrees to help with a college production of a Shakespeare play, where she meets a woman whose pupils seem to periodically disappear – clearly, there’s something strange about her. Hampering her investigation is the fact that Mark Nolan seems to be erasing her memories in order to keep her from learning the truth, and herein lies the problem. The first time this happens, the reader is shown the scene which is then wiped from Ellie’s mind. Later, though, she makes such vague references to events which she has subsequently forgotten that it’s never entirely clear how much the reader is supposed to know about them. Having the reader share in your protagonist’s confusion is all well and good, but only if they can be sure that that confusion is intentional.

Ellie’s eventual realization that something supernatural is going on also comes far too quickly and with not nearly enough evidence to be believable. It is then followed by a (mercifully brief) scene where she Googles Māori legends, landing the story right back into YA cliché territory. Thankfully, all of this is only a temporary misstep. The plot swiftly clarifies itself, with Ellie and Mark teaming up to defeat an ancient and ambiguously-amoral entity who has some compelling connections to both of them. A subplot about a serial killer who takes his victim’s eyes bubbles away in the background before coming to the fore later on.

Healey has a real gift for characterisation, making me almost think that she would have been better off seriously downplaying the novel’s paranormal side– Ellie and her friends (and enemies) are vivid and varied enough to easily carry an entire novel on their own. But whether you come for the characters or for the mythology, you absolutely should give Guardian of the Dead a try. It’s a very welcome example of intelligent YA that never feels as if it’s just going through the motions.

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