“You’re Ellie Spencer…and your eyes are opening.”
Due to the prevalence of GU themes in the genre, and my own inclinations, I tend to read a lot of urban fantasy, and especially a lot of fairy-related stories. Honestly, it can get kind of repetitive. While some books stand out, most just follow a basic recipe with little variation. Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, however, was original and compelling enough to stick with me. While some of the themes are certainly familiar (it wouldn’t be a Girls Underground book if that wasn’t true!), the siting in New Zealand and immersion in Maori mythology gives the story a distinct personality, complemented by characters that are interesting, complex and diverse (and finally, a love story that just gets more complicated and mature as it develops, rather than the typical facile supernatural romance found in YA fiction).
Ellie, 17, is spending her last year of school away from home at a boarding school while her parents travel around the world. She is awkward – a little tall, a little heavy – but strong and capable, excelling in martial arts and her studies. Her only friend is Kevin, who has just revealed to her his big secret: he is asexual. During a brief encounter one day with Mark, the boy she has a crush on, her hair gets caught in his charm bracelet, and he gives her a cryptic warning… things start to get strange after that. It seems that he has the power to make her forget things.
Meanwhile, Ellie is helping with the local university’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is being altered to include Maori symbolism (a nod to the concept of the book itself). A stunning but unpleasant woman named Reka joins the cast as Titania, and immediately turns her attention to Ellie’s best friend, trying to seduce him (though of course, unsuccessfully, although she manages to hold him in her thrall in general).
<spoilers> As Ellie becomes more suspicious of Reka, Mark becomes more secretive, until Ellie finally discovers the truth for herself – Reka is a patupaiarehe, a kind of fairy creature from Maori folklore. She is after Kevin for breeding purposes. And Mark is deeply involved, although it’s hard to tell at first who’s side he’s on. It seems that Reka is the Adversary, who must be defeated in order to rescue Kevin. And in fact, Ellie does just that, holding onto Kevin Tam Lin-style when Reka comes for him, enduring pain to shield him from her claws. But that is only the beginning.
The real threat is the other patupaiarehe, who have been killing magical humans to steal their power, and – in their quest for immortality – are planning a mass murder of millions of people. Ellie, who is just discovering that she herself has a latent talent for magic, must go with Mark to try to stop them. Travelling back to the North Island, they stay in her empty house (fulfilling the “brief return to familiar home” theme) and gather their forces.
But after some heartbreaking defeats and a possible betrayal, Ellie is suddenly on her own, tasked with going to the Underworld (underground, of course) to meet with the goddess of death and stop the patupaiarehe‘s plans. And there is one more rescue-of-a-companion to make, from death itself. </end spoilers>
I have to also note that from a pagan perspective, this book is fascinating. Instead of the more common Celtic-based and modernized fairy lore behind most such books these days, this story is steeped in authentic and complex Maori mythology – not just nature-based spirits, but gods, and monsters, and ritual customs. When Ellie’s inherent magic is woken up, she suddenly sees the truth of the myths – the night sky is a god with a cloak of stars, the island is a legendary fish, etc. But interestingly, she can also see other truths layered over these, from other traditions (such as the Maori and ancient Greek myths regarding the moon), and all are shown to be real simultaneously. There’s some thoughtful theology tucked in there that’s worth pondering.