The book is about Ellie Spencer, a 17 year old girl attending boarding school on the South Island of New Zealand while her parents go around the world on a cruise. It's not what you think, because her mother has just survived her treatment for breast cancer, and they are doing this in celebration. Ellie has to finish school, and she chose Mansfield because it is on South Island, far from her home on the North Island; she couldn't go live with her sister in Sydney because her sister is gay and her parents don't want her lifestyle to rub off on Ellie. Very normal, nothing unusual in that. She thinks she is a normal 17 year old girl, and that is part of the delight of this novel: all her reactions are, from her dislike of her body to her crush on the loner Mark, to her best friend Kevin who is hiding a secret, to the descriptions of the world around her, are satisfyingly real and prosaic. And then she bumps into Mark by accident, and everything changes. It's not what you think, though it is that too: Mark is not what he seems to be, and in touching her, he awakens a latent talent in her for seeing the magic things around her. She discovers she can use magical items, too.
If the book just contained that story, it would be a good solid fantasy novel. It contains much more though, and this is where it hums and sings like the best novels do. Healey has woven New Zealand's myths into this story, so we meet some gods and goddesses, and other spirits, the guardians of places, hence the name of the book. What is even more wonderful than having Maori myths brought to life, is that New Zealand, like any continent settled first by the First People (Aboriginals, we white people name them), and then by white settlers, so there is a mixing of peoples, languages and myths now. Guardian of the Dead is about the ancient New Zealand myths stirring, but it's seen through the eyes of a non-aboriginal girl who loves the Classics. So we get a fabulous mix of Classical mythology with Maori mythology. It's magic. Every magical form we meet, every old creature, the Guardian of the Dead herself - are believable and true and awesome.
This is a story about discovery: Ellie discovers who she is and what she can do. She discovers love, she discovers friends and friendship. She is betrayed, over and over, and stumbles along with only her determination and faithfulness to guide her. I liked Ellie, and I wanted to be Ellie. I liked her that much. She discovers magic. She discovers that the world isn't about her. She discovers how to control people, and how it makes her feel. She discovers myths are real. Her friends are interesting, and she is practical, down to earth, partly because her mother did have cancer, and Ellie spent a lot of her time helping her mother when she could. She makes the story work because she is just a 17 year old girl who mostly wants to be loved.
The journey in to myth is fraught with peril, and it is dangerous to meet myths themselves; humans are never the same afterward. So it is for Ellie, and Mark, as they learn the surviving putapaiarehe are trying to regain the immortality they once had long ago, and join in the attempt to stop them, for it means the destruction of the North Island all together if the ancient creatures succeed.
This is one of my favourite moments in the book, when Ellie is in danger from Mark's mother, Reka, who is a Maori fairy, or patupaiarehe, but really she is a species that is not human:
I wasn't moving. My feet were rooted as Reka's song rose. Numbed, I heard my fate in her voice - not death, but the long, wooden life of tree and bush, sleeping away winters and rising in the spring to thrust mindless to the sun. I might live a century or more until the rot claimed me, and never remember that I had once been a girl, with limbs instead of branches, who had fought, and run, and kissed.
Anger faded into placid acceptance as her voice sang out the final phrase and hung, questioning, on the last word.
I began to sigh my consent.
One of the myths I like is the story of Daphne and Apollo, which this little scene reminded me of very much. How did Daphne feel, when she turned from Apollo's advances, and her father rescues her by turning her into a tree? Much like how Ellie feels as Reska enchants her, I imagine. However Ellie is not fleeing from a boy, and she chooses to stay alive as a girl, before she is saved. This book is about empowerment too, for women, with several very strong female characters like Ellie, to Iris her new friend who is running the school play, to Ellie's teacher Miss Lagribaldi, to the Guardian of the Dead, to Mark's mother who is a dark enchantress. They are all powerful in their way, and for me, I found fascinating and energizing. It's not myths for women, it's women who happen to be powerful encountering and working with or within myths, becoming guardians of secrets. It's a fascinating glimpse into myths that are real because we believe. It really is an extraordinary novel.
The Guardian of the Dead is a marvelous journey to a mythic world. I can't recommend this book highly enough. 5/5.