Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

Guardian of the Dead


"You're Ellie Spencer."

I opened my mouth, just as he added, "And your eyes are opening."
Seventeen-year-old Ellie Spencer is just like any other teenager at her boarding school. She hangs out with her best friend Kevin, she obsesses over Mark, a cute and mysterious bad boy, and her biggest worry is her paper deadline. But then everything changes. The news headlines are all abuzz about a local string of serial killings that all share the same morbid trademark: the victims were discovered with their eyes missing. Then a beautiful yet eerie woman enters Ellie's circle of friends and develops an unhealthy fascination with Kevin, and a crazed old man grabs Ellie in a public square and shoves a tattered Bible into her hands, exclaiming, "You need it. It will save your soul." Soon, Ellie finds herself plunged into a haunting world of vengeful fairies, Maori mythology, romance, betrayal, and an epic battle for immortality.

As I weed through some of the older books I've read so I can begin to clear the decks for the new ones coming in, it occurred to me that I should really start a "Books You Probably Haven't Read, But Should" section.  Yes, there are a ton of new books out there, and, yes, some are very good, but there are some gems out there that most people have never heard about and I'd really like to call attention to them.  So, the first book I've chosen to feature in this section is this one right here.  A gem.  A lovely, sometimes frustrating, but superbly fantastic read by a very, very talented author.  So, here we go...

To be perfectly frank, I had a difficult time deciding on a rating for this novel. Contrary to a few of the editorial reviews, I didn't think this novel hit the ground running, though it did pick-up momentum as the story progressed. It dragged in the beginning, seeming to take its time finding the right pace and, at times, seemed a bit disjointed. I think that's in part due to the disparities between cultures (New Zealand, the setting for this book, versus America). There are innumerable differences between the language and educational systems that take some getting used to and can pull the reader from the story. But once you've acclimated to these differences the story moves more smoothly. In order to be perfectly fair in my review, I felt it necessary to point this out. The Maori cultural references are also a little distracting, requiring the reader to reference a glossary at the back, which pulls one out of the story and, at times, makes it difficult to reengage. It's a necessary element to the plot, and certainly warranted, but I wish it were more seamless, though I'm not certain how the author could have accomplished that without losing authenticity. But once the story took shape and you've had a chance to acclimate, it's a wonderful story and once the action starts, it doesn't slow until the epilogue.

The book ramps up about one quarter of the way in, slowly building into a compelling, interesting tale; blending local New Zealand folklore, mythology and supernatural creatures and deviating from the now, all-too-pat, Y/A paranormal crap. Again, once the action begins to take shape, it never ceases and the first portion of the book is designed to set-up the balance of the story. It's nice to see an author strike out in a new direction and use authentic, yet obscure, folklore to drive the action and mystery, it's sorely lacking these days and I applaud the author for taking the risk. That being said, there was a lot of information to digest and components which needed to be parsed out by the reader and stored away for reference. It's not to say these weren't interesting, refreshing, unique and story-enhancing, because they were, it's simply a point to keep in mind as this isn't the type of book for someone with a short attention span. There's a lot going on and younger, more inexperienced readers might balk at the level of complexity in some of the storytelling.

Ms. Healey does know how to create a vibrant world. Her prose and descriptions are beautifully crafted and immersing. You can actually feel yourself slipping into Ellie's shoes as she struggles through the mud or gazes at the heavens or stumbles through the mist on her journey through the underworld. One reviewer noted that Ellie seemed a bit whiney but I have to disagree. I thought she was perfectly constructed and I enjoyed watching her find her inner strength. What some might find whiney I found an accurate portrayal of someone who recognizes that they're not quite like everyone else and feels a lot of self-doubt and anxiety. But it's never overdone, like characters from other novels who seem to be fixated on their differences. Ellie knows what she's good at and focuses the necessary attention on those aspects of her life which bring her comfort. I think teens can easily relate to that. I appreciated her equally for her flaws and talents, her triumphs and shortcomings, and find that she's relateable in a good way. Ellie is not the quintessential pretty girl or the ugly girl who suddenly figures out she's really gorgeous. She's a plain looking girl whose a little lumpy in the middle, someone who the rest of us would consider "normal".

I had some issues with Kevin, Ellie's best friend, who was kind of an enigma to me. Other than being this really hunky, sexy guy with a strange distaste for anything romantic or sexual (with anyone), I wasn't really certain who he was. I get that there was this sort of co-dependent thing happening between Kevin and Ellie, both needing something the other could provide, but beyond that I never really understood the supposed depth of their relationship. He was kind of "blah" as far as characters go and this surprised me as he was integral to the plot for the first half of the book.

Mark and Iris were two characters who surprised me as I didn't particularly care for either of them at the start. Perhaps that was by design, but irrespective, by the end of the book I was cheering for both of them. Mark, Ellie's crush/love interest is a bit of a jerk at times, lying when confronted with uncomfortable questions, using his powers of manipulation to ease his burdens, but eventually he's afforded the opportunity to explain himself and his dodgy behavior only makes him more endearing. He's also not the typical Y/A hero/bad boy/love interest, though he is mysterious, he's not quite the cold and distant loner I'm used to reading. I also loved that he was a red-head, there aren't too many of those lurking about these days. Sure, he's gorgeous, but he's also smart and vulnerable and at the very core of his nature, he's just a guy who's looking to have a slice of the normalcy afford most teens. These desires, more than any other, drives and compels him to make the choices he does and I appreciated that his life wasn't all about Ellie, but that she was one component of the life he was trying to achieve. He was a real character, conflicted and flawed, emotional and uncertain, just as anyone in his position would be. He didn't claim to know all the answers but struggled to find balance in his life, making mistakes along the way and taking ownership of them. All very real and refreshing qualities if you ask me.

Iris was adorable, under her veneer of perky, smiling, effervescence was a tough girl who valued the importance of friendship and honor and loyalty, traits I hadn't expected to see in her. She boldly stepped into messy and dangerous situations, unflinching in her resolve to protect the people she loved. It's another quality we don't see very often and I enjoyed watching her take charge during situations it would have been easier to walk away from. Iris is inexplicably in love with Kevin who, as I noted, was not interested in any romantic entanglements. This added some possible conflict in the beginning of the book but, when the truth was revealed, Iris took the high road and opted to stand beside Kevin, regardless of his feelings for her, and stepped in to help him when he needed her. She slowly became one of my favorite characters, demonstrating the true importance of loyalty and the lengths to which people will go to protect the ones they love.

I think, to sum up this whole experience, I would have to say that in the beginning of this journey, I was nearly compelled to walk away. But I pressed on and stuck with it through the hard part and am happy that I made that choice. Once you get past the first few chapters the story's a breeze to read and becomes a wonderful and vibrant journey. The ending is a little ambiguous, though not a total upset or unsatisfying in any way, and it certainly leaves the door wide open for a sequel. Once you finish the story it leaves you begging for more and desperate to know what happens to these characters. Out of curiosity I popped over the the author's website and it appears as though, at the moment, she has no plans for a sequel. Ms. Healey does note that it is a world she would eagerly revisit but is not contracted by Little, Brown Books to continue the story so, for now at least, Guardian of the Dead is a stand-alone. But don't let that stop you from reading it, it's well worth the investment.

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