The first several times I saw reviews of this book, I thought it sounded interesting but didn't put it on the library order list. Why? Just another mythological fantasy, strong female character, there are a million of them. I passed it by.
A few weeks ago another review came my way, and this time I decided to forge ahead and read it. I'm glad I did.
Guardian of the Dead is by a New Zealander, and is firmly placed in current day New Zealand. Ellie Spencer is spending her senior year in a boarding school in Christchurch (South Island) while her parents enjoy a year-long trip around the world. She's got a solid friendship with popular golden boy Kevin, a crush on a mysterious misfit, and a black belt in tae kwon do ( though with no time to practice in boarding school, she's gained a few pounds).
One of the really neat aspects of the book is the blending of European faerie traditions (the action gets going when Ellie becomes involved with a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream) and native New Zealand Maori creation mythology. Familiar, yet new and unknown, the author provides an afterword with more information about Maori tradition, her sources, and the ways in which she was faithful to and strayed from the recorded stories. Story is a big part of the novel, not just cultural traditions, but each individual's personal story -- who they are, what they've done, and how they frame this to themselves and others. Recognizing her ability to shape her own story gives Ellie the insight to make her way through the challenges presented by the opposing powers.
Ellie is utterly normal, admirable, appealing but not perfect. She's tall so she slouches, she's broken more than a few school rules but that's not the defining part of her character. She compares herself unfavorably to more perfectly gorgeous girls, but she's not down on herself because of it. She's a loyal friend but not a doormat. She's strong, and she knows it. As she discovers her magical powers (of course there are magical powers!) she learns that there are right and wrong ways to use them, and she sticks to her moral compass as her powers grow.
There were several times when I thought I knew where the plot was headed, only to be surprised by the appearance of strange and unfamiliar characters, a twist or new development that took the novel off in a different direction. Even the North Island ending, with overt elements of Greek mythology (Hades and Persephone, Orpheus and Eurydice), wasn't at all what I anticipated, but it's completely true to the rest of the story.
Something that, to me, makes this novel even better is that the characters are a mix of races and backgrounds, not as token elements but as a feature of contemporary life. There is discussion of race, of passing (as European) or not, of discrimination against the Maori. Ellie's mom is a cancer survivor (hence the celebratory world trip), but it's not a book about cancer. Her older sister in Melbourne is lesbian, her parents are not entirely comfortable with this, but it's not a book about gay rights. It's just how the world is, and it feels right to have it reflected in this way.
Guardian of the Dead has won a ton of awards, Antipodean as well as American. If you like slightly creepy urban fantasy, reworkings of classical and world mythology, a touch of romance, or just like to explore other cultures through literature, Guardian of the Dead is a worthwhile investment of your reading time.