Monday, April 25, 2011
Guardian of the Dead
by Karen Healey
Morris Debut finalist 2011
While attending boarding school (due to her parents' plans to travel around the world for a year), seventeen year-old Eleanor "Ellie" Spencer comes face to face with the myths of the Maori people. A black belt in tae kwon do, Ellie is asked by her best friend Kevin's friend, Iris, to teach some stage fighting to the cast of a student production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at a local university, which Iris is directing. When the girl playing Titania suddenly drops out of the production, Iris enlists the help of a bewitching specter of a woman, who takes more than a passing interest in Kevin.
Meanwhile, a series of grisly murders, collectively known as the Eyeslasher murders, have been perpetrated throughout the country, both on the north and south island. As Ellie begins to spend more time with mysterious day-student Mark Nolan, she realizes that the two seemingly disparate events may be related, and not only is her friend Kevin in danger, but the whole of New Zealand.
With so much of its plot steeped in Maori folklore, I was quite intrigued by the premise of Guardian of the Dead, as I was rather unfamiliar with Maori myth, but I was disappointed with the result. The first half of the book, which is about 180 pages, is well-written for a debut work. The tension between the characters builds as the chapters progress, and Reka, the mysterious woman, is rather unnerving. All of this, however, comes to little fruition as the second half unfolds, introducing a convoluted plot where the patupaiarehe (New Zealand's native fair-folk) attempt to gain immortality and reclaim their native land from the Western settlers.
My main complaint with the latter half is that the pace is so brisk that one has a difficult time keeping up with the myriad side characters that are introduced prior to the climactic battle for New Zealand. I would have preferred fewer characters that had been more developed. I also felt that a number of characters had a few enhancing details sprinkled on for flavour that neither added nor detracted from the story. Prof. Garibaldi, Ellie's classics teacher, is American (and, apparently, a magician), but it's never really explained why she's teaching in New Zealand. And Kevin's asexuality seems tacked on, a simple excuse for why he can't become Reka's consort.
Now, I will say that I liked Ellie. It's not every day that the protagonist is an overweight, comic-reading fan girl, so that was refreshing. She was the only character that was completely fleshed out, so I'm glad that she was likable.
All in all, Guardian of the Dead was an entertaining read, but there's not much else I can say about it. I'd be interested in seeing what else Ms. Healey produces, especially if she continues to polish her writing style, but I hope she waits until after finishing her dissertation, as her ideas deserve her full attention.