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Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey

May 10, 2013

Guardian of the Dead Book blurb

Guardian of the Dead - Karen Healey“This is an intriguing YA urban fantasy in the tradition of Holly Black and Wicked Lovely. Set in New Zealand, Ellie’s main concerns at her boarding school are hanging out with her best friend Kevin, her crush on the mysterious Mark, and her paper deadline. That is, until a mysterious older woman seems to set her sights on Kevin, who is Maori, and has more than just romantic plans for him. In an effort to save him, Ellie is thrown into the world of Maori lore, and eventually finds herself in an all-out war with mist dwelling Maori fairy people called the patupaiarehe who need human lives to gain immortality. The strong, fresh voice of the narrator will pull readers in, along with all the deliciously scary details: the serial killer who removes victim’s eyes; the mysterious crazy bum who forces a Bible on Ellie telling her she needs it; handsome, mysterious Mark who steals the Bible from her and then casts a forgetting charm on her. All of this culminates in a unique, incredible adventure steeped with mythology, Maori fairies, monsters, betrayal, and an epic battle..” ~ from Fishpond 

“Seventeen-year-old Ellie Spencer is just like any other teenager at her boarding school, until a beautiful yet eerie woman enters Ellie’s circle of frineds and develops an unhealthy fascination with her best friend, Kevin. Ellie herself has an unhealthy fascination – a handsome boy named Mark who seems to have put a spell over her. As shocking revelations and lusts unfold, Ellie finds herself plunged into a haunting world of vengeful fairies, Māori mythology, romance, betrayal, and an epic battle for immortality.” ~ from the back of the book

Guardian of the Dead First Page

Southern Lights

I opened my eyes.
My legs were bound and my head ached. There was one dark moment of disorientation before the bad-dream fog abruptly lifted and i woke up all the way and rolled to smack the shrilling alarm. I was exactly where I was supposed to be: in my tiny room, lumpy pillow over my head and thick maroon comforter wrapped around my legs. I disentangled myself and kicked the comforter away. The muffled tinkling as it slithered off the foot of the bed reminded me that Kevin and I had stored the empty beer cans there.” (p.1)

Ref: Karen Healey (2011) Guardian of the Dead. Little, Brown and Company: New York

Guardian of the Dead - HealeyThemes in the novel


Possible directions for study/questions to apply to Guardian of the Dead

Before I give my own views on the book, let me point you towards an essay I thoroughly enjoyed by Geoffrey Miles (see earlier blog ‘Geoffrey Miles on Maori Gothic’), because it’s excellent and because it will set the critical scene for reading this book in wonderful ways.

The Gothic

Māori Gothic: Access the whole of Geoffrey Miles’ essay and consider the use of this term in describing Guardian of the Dead… Can Guardian of the Dead be described as Māori Gothic?

Kiwi Gothic: Healey immerses her characters in this tradition early on when the protagonist and her fellow classmates are required to choose a film – but to choose one of three violent representations of NZ life:

“Final period English was my only class with Kevin, science nerd that he was, and it was, to the joy of nearly everyone, a movie screening day. We’d had the option of Heavenly Creatures, Once Were Warriors, and Rain for the film section. Given the choice between teenage matricide, teenage suicide, and possible pedophilia, the class had voted overwhelmingly for matricide. I hadn’t; I remembered the horrible months last year when my mother had struggled against the cancer and the chemo, and resented my classmates’ enthusiasm for what was, after all, a true story about a nasty murder. When they [-p.53] caught the Eyeslasher, would Peter Jackson want the rights to that too?
Heavenly Creatures began with the patchy film of Christchurch in the 50s, looking even whiter and duller than now, and got progressively creepier. ‘There are New Zealand comedies,’ I whispered to Kevin, reasonably safe from Mr. Aaronsen in the dimmed light. Backseats by the radiators were even more in demand on film days, but Kevin had gotten there early, and saved one for me.
‘Comedies aren’t art, darling,’ he replied, in a fair posh English accent.” (pp.52-53)

What are we to make of this ‘storification’ of NZ? Particularly in light of all the other storytelling that occurs in the novel? What kind of NZ does Ellie live in? How does it contrast with ‘reality’?

How do representations of places affect our experience of them? What does it mean for ‘reality’ when we engage with filmic images of (actually inhabited) places? Some of the theory around photography and image is relevant here.

Shifting slightly to a piece of imagery I particularly liked; Describing the supernatural mask that Ellie buys (and which empowers her to triumph in the end), Healey draws on a particularly Kiwi experience of absence when she writes: “I carefully eased the mask from its wrapping. There was a strange buzzing in my ears, like singing from someone else’s headphones: something that had a coherent meaning, but only if you were close enough to hear it. When [-p.68] my fingers touched just stroking around the edges of that beautiful face, it was like the completion of a circuit, or the moment before applause for a find performance, or the hushed silence of Anzac Day dawn services, after the bugle sounded for the soldiers who had never come home.” (pp.67-68) (You could interpret the theatre imagery here to interesting effect, too, of course). I really, really like this image. It is incredibly apt.

Refer also to Rose Lovell-Smith in  ‘setting‘ below…

Guardian of the DeadGothic families

I can’t help thinking about the ‘Gothic family‘ when I read Guardian of the Dead (bearing in mind, of course, Lisa Hopkins’ statement that “A staple of ‘Kiwi Gothic’ is violence within the family”)…. Ellie is haunted by her family’s past, but in a very modern way (and in a way that is very real for such a supernatural novel); Ellie’s mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before, brushing very close to death and undergoing a lot with treatments. What Ellie calls ‘Cancer Year’ removed Ellie from her social world (friends, boyfriend, etc.), leaving her largely alone (except for her tae kwan do teacher). The loneliness of Cancer Year ‘haunts her’ in her new setting where she feels isolated, different, ugly, etc. until she engages with the supernatural and triumphs.

Anna Smith asks: “Unquestionably, the Gothic genre lends itself particularly well to dramatizing narratives of lost and broken families [but can] the ‘Gothic’ […] stand for anything other than a failed or psychotic family. Do scary narratives, in other words, always have to address – and spring from – scary families?” (p.139 Anna Smith ‘The Scary Tale Looks for a Family: Gary Crew’s Gothic Hospital and Sonya Hartnett’s The Devil Latch’ pp.131-143 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York).

What kinds of families are there in Guardian of the Dead? What fears, repressions, etc. mark these families? What do we read of love and nurturing?

Perhaps also relevant; Anna Smith also notes: “…if the Gothic has any determining feature, it is in its claims to deal with unfinished business: with hauntings, returns, doublings, and with secrets that won’t go away – things  undead, in other words.” (p.133) …so what ‘unfinished business’ is there in this novel? …how do Ellie’s ‘ghosts’ impact on her life at the beginning of this novel? and how has she dealt with them (or not) by the end?


In terms of ‘setting‘ (always an important factor of the Gothic), I was first put in mind of Urban Fantasy traditions, but happened to read Rose Lovell-Smith’s ‘On the Gothic Beach’ at the same time. Many of the arguments Lovell-Smith presents about Mahy’s use of the beach as a Kiwi Gothic setting in The Tricksters could be adapted for use on this novel; except that in this case it would be in terms of native bush/virgin ‘forest’ – the ‘Riccarton Bush’ which is Reka’s home (p.116), but also marked by European settlement (p.44).

Consider this:

“Mark stared at the ceiling for a moment, then drummed his fingers against the table. ‘Okay. Some history, then. She’s of a species that made New Zealand their home centuries before humans settled here. When humans started migrating, her people withdrew almost entirely to the mists.’
‘First question,’ I said, raising my hand, and he nodded.
‘The mists are… sort of a real place and sort of not, he said. ‘They’re connected to real places, in the bush and mountains and by the sea. Patupaiarehe can go deep into the mists and move through them, but others can’t unless they’re very powerful, or have something very powerful. And…’ he hesitated. ‘They’re real places to the patupaiarehe. They make them real out of their belief. But if you go in and you don’t know what you’ll find, you could find yourself in any kind of place. You bring your own history, your own mythology with you.'” (p.141)

Ref: Rose Lovell-Smith ‘On the Gothic Beach: A New Zealand Reading of House and Landscape in Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters‘ pp.93-115 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

NOTE: In a weirdly Gothic way, “Many of the places mentioned in Guardian of the Dead don’t actually exist any more.” They’re there (as ‘traces’) in the text, but marked by a new kind of violence for any reader familiar with the area before the earthquakes began…. How does ‘reality’ impact on the telling of this story? (if you think in terms of the Gothic – or in terms of the ‘power of story’ theme worked here?)

NOTE also: Healey invented the school, Mansfield College, but offers ‘background information’ on it on her website:    Similarly, she gives background information on the Ngaio Marsh Theatre:

As for what else I think about Guardian of the Dead…. Consider:

  • How powerful are stories – or ‘story’ – in this novel? Why is this fascination with the power of story such a mainstay of children’s and adolescent fiction in the 21st century?
  • How could this story have been told differently?
  • The tone is eerie from the beginning and definitely shapes this tale, but how? What narrative elements make the tone ‘eerie’? (For me, I think it begins with the first lines: “I opened my eyes. My legs were bound and my head ached.” Even if these words are undercut by normality in the next lines, this binding of the self and accompanying desire for vision is what begins the tale…
  • What qualities of character shape Ellie’s story in Guardian of the Dead? Does her character change during the course of the story?
  • Does the novel invite consideration of the concept of ‘truth’? …by merging the supernatural and the real in terms of ‘story’?
  • How is ‘story’, as a concept, treated in the novel?
  • It would be interesting to pull out all the stories that are told in this novel (including, for example, the “cautionary tale” about student suicide at Ellie’s school (p.49), or Kevin’s missing Grand Uncle (p.58), or La Gribaldi’s Danish heritage and the accompanying story of Dannevirke (p.272)). What purpose does each story serve? How is it used? What cultural heritage/baggage is attached to it?
  • How do all the stories together create a picture of multicultural NZ?
  • Are stories, myths and legends still meaningful and useful to modern audiences? In what way?
  • What of the intertextuality in this novel? There are numerous references to classic texts, myths, tales, and legends. What do these references add to the story? (and to the tone of the story?)
  • Consider, for example, that the play being put on here is A Midsummer Night’s Dreamare we invited by this reference to make certain connections between that text and this in terms of reality and dream, magic and story, etc.?
  • On that note: Healey works numerous mythologies of the dead into this story… the experience of entering the world of the dead and/or of encountering death has its own history of interpretation. How might such interpretations be relevant to this YA tale? [NB: pp.168-174]
  • Patupaiarehe are key figures in this story. What do we make of their adoption here? What stories (about patupaiarehe) can we bring to this novel, so as to create meaning out of the text?
  • What are we to make of Healey’s disclaimer about her own narrator/protagonist at the end of the novel? (Healey writes: “This novel is greatly indebted to Māori mythology and draws on some points of traditional Māori social and religious custom: it touches only very lightly on the diverse cultures, politics, and history of modern Māori life, and that only as seen through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old Pākehā woman, who is very far from being a reliable narrator.” (p.338) The two qualifiers of ‘unreliability’ here, I think, are ’17 years’ and ‘Pākehā’ … ) If we read this in terms of Kiwi literary politics, what do we make of it? It’s a fraught discussion point!
  • Reader reception of powerful women in stories is referred to repeatedly. (Consider for example the classroom scene where Ellie and Mark argue over the role of women in Greek stories (pp.48-49): e.g., “the Greeks didn’t like women with magic – look at what happened to Medea and Ariadne” (p.48); “You’re not supposed to cheer for women who use their magic to actually do anything.” (p.49). Or, again, when Ellie writes her Odyssey essay and observes: “A fear of a dangerous, beautiful woman controlling hapless men was so obviously ancient Greek paranoia.” (p.93)) Interestingly, powerful female protagonists are also a generic feature of Urban Fantasy, which Guardian of the Dead qualifies as. Are we invited to think about ‘heroines’ and powerful women in this novel?
  • Certainly, gendered power relationships are encountered and, to some extent, challenged throughout the novel. Consider: Reka (the half-human, half-patupaiarehe, part-villainess of the novel) declares: “No, I think we should not go back. No living patupaiarehe was born immortal. We should live in this world through our children,” a statement which leads to the following interchange: “What a fantastic excuse for rape,” Iris said sweetly. “Robert loved me.” [Reka replied] “But he didn’t know what you were, did he? What kind of consent is that?”” (p.210)
  • the forty foot rule‘ gets mentioned a couple of times in relation to the theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (e.g., p.38), inviting us to consider how our perceptions are changed by distance – and how they can be manipulated by storytelling/production. How are Ellie’s perceptions of the world around her changed in this novel? When? How? By what? etc.
  • Ellie is incessantly worried about her looks and how she compares physically with other girls, etc.. The mask she buys makes her beautiful ‘in the eyes of’ others, thereby giving her enormous power. The theme of beauty is approached in other ways as well. Mark mentions it (linking it to story interpretation) when he states: “Not… a lot of people know the story, do you get it? It’s the shape of the story that matters, the way belief forms around it. The story has real weight. …patupaiarehe look like monsters in some stories, but they’re beautiful in a lot. I guess people believed more in the beautiful version. And the ideal of beauty changes. If i’d been born two hundred years ago, I bet I wouldn’t look like this. The stories shaped me. They shape everyone, inside and out, but me more than most, because I’m magic.” (p.173).
  • Mark’s conversion into a taniwha at the end of the novel is more interesting than just plot and relates back to his spiel about being shaped by story (p.173 – quoted in the point above). (Mark also intends to learn how to appear in human form so he can be with Ellie when she comes back to Napier in the future, an interesting twist on traditional romance endings). How have taniwha stories shaped NZ?
  • Eyes are important in this novel – on a plot level, a mythological/belief level, and also in terms of imagery. It might be interesting to consider how ‘eyes’ and ‘sight’ contribute to this novel (and through what cultural reading expectations).
  • The trope of the powerful teacher in YA fiction (here, La Gribaldi) is another interesting line of thought; Consider what has been said about Dumbledore, for example, in contrast with what has been said about ‘the public text of teacher‘ in much younger children’s fiction (refer Roberta Seelinger Trites (2001) The Harry Potter novels as a test case for adolescent literature. Style 35(3)Fall, pp.472-485  /  Elizabeth Rose Gruner (2009) ‘Teach the Children: Education and knowledge in Recent Children’s Fantasy’ Children’s Literature 37; pp216-235). General criticism of the way education is represented in fiction may also be relevant.
  • I haven’t considered this text in terms of romance criticism, which might also be revealing…
  • The other thing that interested me is the way that Ellie’s abilities in terms of self-defense are represented (well!). She also has attitudes towards violence that are seem realistic in terms of her character; these attitudes are presented as peaceful… are they, though? Under what moral conditions is violence okay?
  • There is more, but that’s enough for now!

Texts that invite comparison

Perhaps any novel that treats with the above themes… Also:

I couldn’t help being put in mind of Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover while reading Guardian of the Dead. Not just the references to fairy tales, or the adaptation of fairy tales for the purposes of modern Young Adult fantasy/UF/romance… Also the discovery within the protagonist of an undeveloped supernatural identity – one that is revealed through romantic engagement with a supernatural love interest… then there is the urban setting (Chch in both cases!)… just a thought.

With its use of the supernatural and its kick-ass heroine, Guardian of the Dead fits into the genre of Urban Fantasy. It might be interesting to compare this heroine with those of other urban fantasies…

In her Afterword (pp.335-338), Karen Healey points interested readers to other books that work in Māori mythology: “If you’d like to read more young adult fiction that draws on Māori mythology as inspiration for contemporary stories,” she writes, “Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider and Joanna Orwin’s The Guardian of the Land are fantastic. Gaelyn Gordon’s Stonelight and the sequel Mindfire are contemporary fantasy adventures that show the patupaiarehe in a much more positive light. Dylan Horrock’s graphic novel Hicksville features Te Ika a Māui (very much alive) and is just generally wonderful. If you can get your hands on it, I also recommend the excellent television horror/drama series Mataku, where contemporary new Zealanders encounter the Māori supernatural – much of it is based on stories maintained in the oral tradition rather than those recorded in writing.” (p.338) Any of these works might provide an interesting counterpoint – and create space for comparison and understanding.

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please add them!

Healey’s Guardian of the Dead: a History

Awards won:

Publishing History:

Classed on the Hachette website as ‘JUVENILE FICTION / ACTION & ADVENTURE – GENERAL,JUVENILE FICTION / LEGENDS, MYTHS, FABLES – GENERAL,JUVENILE FICTION / PEOPLE & PLACES – AUSTRALIA & OCEANIA’, Guardian of the Dead was first published in 2010. It seems to have received a fair bit of American attention (perhaps because it has an American publisher!), but I don’t feel it has received so much attention here in NZ/Aotearoa.

Bibliography of secondary literature:

Author information:

Refer to earlier blog, ‘Introducing Karen Healey

or her website:


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