Monday, May 3, 2010

Review: Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

This book pretty much has everything I love in it: a culturally diverse cast, myths and legends (with major bonus points because they are Māori myths, which I knew nothing about prior to reading this), casual talk of feminism, passes the Bechdel test, and no creepy co-dependent/stalker-y romance. Karen Healey may be my new hero.

When her mom's cancer goes into remission, Ellie's parents go on an around-the-world vacation, leaving Ellie in a strict private boarding school. Ellie is slow to make friends, but quickly bonds with Kevin - who she develops a crush on despite his asexual identity. After Kevin convinces her to put her tae kwon do skills to work choreographing epic fights for the local college's Māori-tinged production of Midsummer Night's Dream (there I go, reading another book with Midsummer in it), she quickly starts making friends inside and out of the play: Iris the underclassman director (no senior wanted to take on a play close to exams) and Mark, a quiet day student at her boarding school who is dreamy and handsome - and seems to be able to literally hypnotize her. Kevin also makes new friends - namely the mysterious Reka, playing the fairy queen Titania, who freaks Ellie out. Probably because her pupils have a habit of disappearing.

But Ellie has a few tricks up her sleeve as well, even if she doesn't know it at first. As Mark repeatedly tries to use his mystical powers to keep Ellie safe, she finds ways to break, or at least weaken, his spells - proving that she has some latent magical ability herself. And once this latent ability is revealed, she suddenly becomes a much more inviting target for the Eyeslasher Killer - a serial killer targeting those who have connections to magic and mysticism and takes their eyes as trophies.

Ellie is skeptical of her newfound abilities, but can't deny the evidence right in front of her. And after she and Mark learn of a plot to magically inspire an epic disaster, Ellie knows she has to at least try to stop it - or die trying.

Okay, there's so much to love here that I'm going to resort to bullet points, because otherwise this post will never be finished:

  • Diverse cast: Ellie is pretty much the only white, European-descendant character in the whole book. Kevin and Mark have Māori ancestry (though descriptions of them do read as more "white" than anything else), Ellie's favorite teacher is Eritrean (and has lived all around the world), Iris is Asian, and even descriptions of random people in crowd scenes are written to ensure we know that Ellie's world is incredibly diverse. No token ethnic folks here.
  • Māori myths: I knew nothing of Māori mythology before picking up this book. An authors note at the end explains what is based on true mythology and what Healey made up or adapted for dramatic purposes, which just piques my interest more!
  • Casual feminism: Feminism pops up all over the place here. Myths are called out as sexist for lack of female participants or blatant female subjugation. And here is something that just shocked me: a relationship is described as rape because one party wasn't fully aware of the identity of the other party. Magical person seduces human person without revealing the magical identity and Iris flat out calls that rape, since the human didn't consent to having sex with a magical person. This is the sort of conversation I never see outside of hardcore feminist arenas, so I was shocked that it just appeared in the middle of my urban fantasy YA book. Thus officially making Karen Healey my hero.
  • Passes the Bechdel Test: Ellie does spend most of her time hanging out with dudes, but there are two important female supporting characters: Iris and Professor Garibaldi, the Eritrean teacher. Ellie has numerous conversations with them that are not about boys (and it should be noted that neither character is white!)
  • Non-creepy romance: Well, okay, there is creepy romance in this book, but Ellie isn't part of it. When Mark starts using his magical skills on her, Ellie instantly forgets whatever conversation they had had, but because of her latent abilities she has a lingering sensation that despite how handsome and nice he seems, there's something weird about Mark, and rather than continuing to moon over him, she gets pissed until she gets some answers. The creepy relationship is between Reka and Kevin, where for once it's the woman who is the creepy stalker type and the boy who is going along with it (not that I'm condoning creepy relationships of any kind). However, everyone aside from Kevin recognizes there's something wrong and work to get to the bottom of it.
  • One more that I forgot at the top of this post: not just heterosexuals here! As mentioned above, before Reka shows up, Kevin identifies as asexual. Which is kind of awesome, because when was the last time you saw an asexual character in any book? It's one of the ways Ellie and Iris are sure that something weird is going on with Reka, because even though they both have a crush on Kevin they recognize that he is serious about his asexual identity - they don't think it's a phase or a lie so that he could get close to hot girls. Ellie's sister off in Australia is gay, which is part of the reason she's at boarding school while her parents are away - the implication is they were worried about Ellie catching "the gay" if she stayed with her sister for a year.

There's only one downside here: despite the feminism, Ellie has some major body image issues going on. Did we really need to be constantly reminded that she hates her body? Any time she has to change clothes she starts going off on how much she hates the rolls of fat around her belly. Considering how physically active she is in other parts of the book, it seems unlikely that she's actually significantly overweight. It was really disappointing to see that brought up multiple times for absolutely no purpose.

Okay, I'm putting an end to my list-making here. I think I've covered all of the main awesome points. To summarize: this is an awesome fantasy book with excellent progressive elements and I highly recommend it!
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