Stories are an important part of life. They underpin our belief systems and help bring people together. And they are an essential framework for understanding our history and cultural identity, not to mention the many different shades of human nature.
In Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, stories have shaped the world. But to Ellie Spenser – a very ordinary, very human schoolgirl – the stories are harmless. Until a chance encounter with the mysterious class recluse opens her eyes to a world of magic, and a power within she never knew she had.
The mythology in Guardian of the Dead is fascinating. Maori myth and folklore is generally rather well-known in New Zealand. Children learn about the origin stories in school and through popular picture books, and also passed down through the generations in a rich tradition of oral history.
A leading figure in Maori mythology is that of Maui, the famous hero and trickster who appears in many legends, including the formation of the North and South Islands. According to the story Maui fished up the North Island, which is shaped roughly like a flailing fish – Te Ika A Maui.
Greek mythology also features in Guardian of the Dead, stories that are almost universally known and loved. If you think about it, we each carry with us bits and pieces of different cultures, absorbed over the years through family, friends, influences and interests. This is especially true of Ellie.
Her magical perception of the world shifts according to different stories, relative to how much she believes in them. At first glance the stars are just stars, the moon a crater-hewn rock in the sky. But when she looks again Ellie can see the father of the world stretched out above the earth, his cloak a mantle of shining lights, and a woman in the moon with long hair and sorrowful eyes. The more she understands the more she sees. It’s a creative, literal interpretation of the stories of the world. Living mythology, influential and very real.
Guardian of the Dead is set in Christchurch before the earthquake in the area surrounding the University of Canterbury. Ellie is a boarding student at the fictional Mansfield College, a prestigious school that breeds high expectations. She spends a lot of time at the University, researching in the library and helping out with a production for the theatre department. The Christchurch of the book is wonderfully evoked. There’s a sense of small town familiarity about the city, with the easily recognizable landscapes and distinctive suburbs, but it’s also laced with a sinister gothic undercurrent.
Danger lurks in the native bush and an ancient and terrible spirit is hidden in the river. There is mystery in things and places. And with a string of murders scattered throughout the North Island victims are slowly cropping up further south.
Ellie deals – or doesn’t deal – with these and many more threats with cool nerve. She is not your typical protagonist. Ellie is far more down to earth and not at all feminine. She can defend herself from physical attack well enough with a black belt in martial arts, but is far more vulnerable to emotional sabotage. Mark Nolan, the main catalyst in her story, at different times baffles, intrigues, and enrages Ellie. It’s very refreshing. As a rational, perfectly insecure teenage girl she doesn’t fall head over heels in love, but rather progresses tentatively, with ill-humor.
The supporting characters in Guardian of the Dead are different as well. Like Ellie, they at once feel very real and relatable. Kevin Waldgrave is the best (and at times only) friend – Maori, good-looking, effortlessly charming, he is a symbol of family and normality in a world of chaos. Iris Tsang is a friend of a friend, who perhaps represents the reader in the story, reacting and commenting appropriately like a third person observer. And Mark, self-depreciating and melancholy for all the right reasons, the kind of boy you wish for in a fantasy novel.
Guardian of the Dead is a compelling YA read that anyone with a love of fantasy and mythology will appreciate. The premise is clever – the stories are real – and it’s guaranteed to keep you up all night in fiendish glee.