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Guardian of the Dead (book review)

April 15, 2010

Guardian of the Dead
Karen Healey
Little, Brown and Company
April 2010 $17.99 352 pages

Magic and myth seeps into the ordinary modern world. Ellie Spencer, a new student, feels shy and vulnerable at her boarding school, although she kicks butt enough to have a black belt, and can take care of herself in a fight, thank you very much. There’s even a touch of crime, whispers about a gruesome serial killer adding real-world suspense to the overall creepiness of encroaching magic.

I loved this book. So much. It had me within the first few pages, with a latent spookiness underlying a theater production. Ellie was teaching the drama club stage combat. (Something I’ve always wanted to learn.) And better yet– they were putting on a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. My favorite Shakespeare play of all time. Ever. (Stir up the right conversational tangent and I will bore you with details of playing Peter Quince in my high school production. Memories of it still make me laugh fondly.) Right. Back to the book.
Magic and menace deepen around Ellie- lingering glances, an odd charm bracelet, an eccentric and imperious redheaded girl… Throughout it all, there’s an additional exciting edge of foreignness, from the setting in New Zealand. Even before reality gets seriously skewed and the adventure begins, the glimpse into New Zealand’s culture is fascinating. I don’t know much about Maori culture, or how modern city life in New Zealand makes its peace with ancient traditions. It made the story even more enticing.
Once touches of magic and the supernatural became harder for Ellie to ignore, I loved the book even more. Odd, magical beings and events set against a college backdrop. It reminded me, in all the best possible ways, of Tam Lin, by Pamela Dean. Tam Lin is one of my all-time favorite novels, wonderful and otherworldly and immersive, even though I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve reread it. Guardian of the Dead looks like it’s going to be the same kind of book. Whispers of Maori myth, Shakespeare, and the magical possibilities of everyday things, keep lingering at the back of my mind kind of dreamily.

The only frustrating part of this book— is that I’m reviewing it in a giant YA roundup for the Newark Star-Ledger! And, newspaper budgets being as strict as they are, I have only a few words, a few sentences to spare. Wonder if my editor would let me write:

Read this. It’s elegant, spooky modern fantasy. Go. Read this now.

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