Book Review: Guardian of the Dead, by Karen Healey

Content note: I’ve tried to keep this post relatively free of spoilers for the benefit of readers who haven’t read the book yet.

Guardian of the Dead is a young adult novel set in New Zealand which has a delicious social justice flavour. For that last reason alone, I’d recommend it, but the thing is that it’s also really good. I know that a lot of my readers like YA fiction and I think y’all would enjoy it, and several of you probably have some YA consumers in your lives who might enjoy a book that’s, well, it’s fresh. That’s what I said about it when I finished it. Guardian of the Dead is really different.

I haven’t read a lot of literature coming out of New Zealand and one of the things I really liked about Guardian of the Dead was that it gave me a little peep into New Zealand; the book was seeped also not just in the Anglo culture of New Zealand, but also Maori traditions and myths, which played a big role in the story. I thought that Healey did a really good job of integrating them into the story without making it feel forced or stagy, right down to the subtle mockery of white appropriations of Maori traditions.

In ‘Cover Talk,’ Healey talked about the casual appropriation of indigenous culture which her publisher tried to pull off when the book cover for the New Zealand edition was being designed. The original cover featured a white person covered in ta moko. Rightly so, she was pissed, and sent a polite email suggesting that her publisher come up with a better idea, tout de suite. I was thinking about that while I read the book, about how people don’t even think that it would be at all problematic to do things like throwing a college play in which people wear bodysuits decorated with traditional designs, one of the plot elements in the book. As she pointed out when talking about her cover, resisting these things is hard; her publisher could have told her to get stuffed and she would have had to tolerate it, and it would have been especially sad, given the content of the book. I’m really glad that she pushed back against that cover and I wish that all authors were able to do that[1. Sometimes authors are literally not able, as in they are not informed about their covers at all until it’s too late.].

The cover for the edition I picked up here in the United States happily evaded a similarly appropriative fate, instead including a representation of a mask, another plot element.

But enough about the cover already. What happens in the book, and what makes it so great? Well, I can’t tell you too  much about what happens because I don’t want to spoil you, but I will say that some magical entities and magic in general are involved. I got to learn a bit about some different origin myths, and I think that the book had a really fun and interesting take on an alternate world which, again, I do not want to spoil for you, but it is supercool.

From a social justice perspective, the thing that I really loved is that all of these neat things were embedded. Stereotypes got turned on their heads. A character openly acknowledged that something she was doing was racist and not very cool right at the start of the book, getting us off on the right foot in social justice terms, I thought. In another scene, she was excluded from a conversation and she got all huffy about it and another character basically said ‘this is about this person’s traditions; it’s up to him to  invite you to participate’ and it was a nice little slap on the wrist and reminder that, yeah, some conversations are actually not group events open to all.

It’s a book which is racially diverse, without shoving it in your face. It’s not safe to assume that all of the characters are white, even if other characters identify them as such, and Healey did a good job of not sticking people into boxes. I didn’t feel like any characters were included as tokens, but were included as people who were integral to the story. There are also queer characters, and asexual characters, and even as other characters struggle with their identities, they are not trivialised or turned into teachable moments. They just are; it’s up to the other characters to figure out how to relate to them.

The book also touches upon mental illness, and what it can be like for family members of people with mental illness. I don’t want to get into too much detail, again, because of spoilage issues, but I think that the struggles that the characters have reflect things which happen in the real world and that Healey explored some of the complexities of having a family member with mental illness. She didn’t make anyone into a saint or a caricature, and I appreciate that, because too often mental illness is depicted as an object of amusement or as a tremendous and insurmountable burden. It can be a hard line to walk, between honest depiction of something and something which not only doesn’t ring true, but feels dirty and unpleasant.

I think that for some readers, Guardian of the Dead may challenge some held assumptions, in a quiet way which worms into the brain of the reader and manifests later. I suspect that some readers may be mulling bits over and thinking about things in new ways after reading it.

It’s a story which makes me want to know more about the characters and what happens next and where they go from here. I felt a certain amount of kinship with the main character, although she did harp on her body a bit more than strictly necessary, and I felt like she’s someone I’d like to see in other books, doing other things, because she’s got interesting things to say.

In case it’s not evident from everything I’ve said here, I really would highly recommend Guardian of the Dead, and I’d be curious to know what other folks thought about it.

Related reading: Karen Healey’s LiveJournal, Attention Rebellious Jezebels