Guardian of the Dead
Written by Karen Healey
Little, Brown, 2010, 352 pp.
Ellie is an 18-year-old boarding school student on the South Island of New Zealand. Her life is that of a pretty normal high school girl until an accidental brush with a magical object (and her mysterious crush) awakens latent magical powers that she didn’t know she had (and isn’t sure she wants). With her new awakening comes encounters with magical creatures and the ability to see an alternate reality in the everyday—both based on Maori mythology. But it also comes with the knowledge that the Eyeslasher murders plaguing the North Island and the beautiful Reka who is eerily eyeing Ellie’s best friend Kevin are part of two separate, evil plans. Ellie needs to help stop these plans in order to save the fate of New Zealand and that of her friend.
With a female heroine saving the day and the males, a boy-girl friendship in which neither secretly pine after the other, and a not quite happily-ever-after ending, Guardian of the Dead defies typical young adult fantasy novels, with the added benefit of a cast of magical creatures and mythology based on Maori lore. This book is also exceptional in that the female lead is not a typical beauty—she is described as very tall, overweight and insecure, gaining confidence as the book progresses and ultimately (although with a twist) gets the guy. The story explores themes of loyalty, choice, and acceptance of differences—from appearances to cultural. This book would be best for adolescent readers, but educators should note that there is graphic violence and adult language throughout the book.
Karen Healey is a native of New Zealand. While not a Maori, she did extensive research on Maori mythology and in the book’s afterword notes the authorial license she took in adapting these legends to fit the purposes of her story. While the novel has a glossary of some of the Maori words used in the text, many words are not explained, but are usually understandable in context, because they are common Maori words used in the everyday language of New Zealanders. When the words aren’t explained, it can be frustrating for those unfamiliar with the Maori language, but this is only occasionally a problem.
Guardian of the Dead would make a great addition to a unit on world mythology, fantasy novels, or New Zealand. By pairing it with more classical Maori mythology books such as Taniwha by Robyn Kahukiwa (1987) and Maui and the Sun: A Maori Tale by Gavin Bishop (1996), readers can explore how the Maori mythology was used in Guardian of the Dead and the differences between the classic mythology and the modern spin. The novel could also be paired with The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera (2010) for two modern looks at Maori mythology. However the book is used, it is an engaging story that captures the reader and has received favorable reviews including a starred review from School Library Journal.
University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ