Courtney Johnston's Reviews > Guardian of the Dead

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey
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Jan 07, 11

bookshelves: borrowed, fiction
Read from January 06 to 07, 2011

Smart, sophisticated homegrown YA.

Jolisa Gracewood does the honours in this interview with Healey far better than I can. So I'll just give you a list of things I liked:

1. The central character, Ellie, is quick to inform us that she's not attractive (too tall and, recently, too fat, although to her chagrin none of this extra weight has chosen to allocate itself to her chest) and yet the male characters clearly find her sexy and the moments of sexual attention - wanted and unwanted - are handled in a very believable way.

2. The teenage characters say 'fuck' when teenage characters would. Thank fuck for that. I loathe the trend for pretend swearing and avoidance of four-letter words in YA.

3. The extreme specificity of the setting, in central Christchurch and, later in the book, Napier. I've spent enough time in the smog capital of New Zealand to both visualise the action and empathise with Ellie's disdain for its dank winter days

4. That Classics class plays a big role in the book. (Pure sentimentality on my part, I loved Classics).

5. That Healey used Maori mythology (and other traditions) in an intelligent and downright scary way. Having a glossary of the te reo words used in the book was useful (and removed the need for too many explanatory passages), although as a New Zealand reader I found having them italicised in the text jolting. Whanau, iwi, taiaha - these are everyday words now.

6. That Healey strayed awfully close to some YA tropes - first love, parental illness, smart-not-pretty outsider heroine - without tipping over the edge and becoming a book I've read too many timesbefore.

The mixture of fantasy and realism, underpinned by a deep New Zealandness, reminded me strongly of Margaret Mahy's books that deal with magic and teenagers (The Trickers, The Changeover, Alchemy) and Maurice Gee's still-shit-scary Halfmen of O trilogy. While Healey's book didn't have that sense of wider reach of Patrick Ness's series, or even the Hunger Games trilogy, (the core theme of outsider girl becoming confident in her own power and thus her own skin is by no means unusual), I'd still highly recommend 'Guardian of the Dead' to anyone curious about that 'other' strain of New Zealand writing (ie. not wan short stories and ... well, other stuff I don't read).
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