Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey. ★★1/2
Going into Guardians of the Dead, I had only vague ideas of what it was about. I knew that it was set in New Zealand, involved Māori mythology, contained an asexual side character and appeared on many asexual representation lists. The last two are largely why I picked up the book. Plus, I was in New Zealand at the time and thought it would be cool to read a book set there.
Ellie Spencer is a seventeen year old who’s counting down the days until she can graduate from boarding school, where she really only has one friend – Kevin. Her largest concern is getting roped in to do martial arts choreography for a local student play, but strange things keep seeming to happen to her. First of all, something is up with Mark, that guy she has a crush on. And who’s the strange woman who’s practically stalking Kevin? Soon Ellie will find herself unwittingly involved in the worlds of myth and magic.
As I’m not Māori, I can’t speak as to how the culture was used in this book. If anyone finds a review from a Māori reviewer, I’d love to read it! Healey does note in her afterword that the narrator of the book is Pākehā (non-Māori) and that the culture is filtered through her view. I did enjoy reading this book while I was in New Zealand, and it’s made me realize that I’ve never read any other books set there. I definitely need to look into other New Zealand science fiction and fantasy novels.
I am glad that Guardian of the Dead included an asexual character, but I didn’t think Kevin was great representation. There are a few positive points. For one, it actually says the word “asexual” on page! For another Kevin has friends and isn’t socially isolated. However, the book conflates the terms “asexual” (someone who doesn’t experience sexual attraction) with “aromantic” (someone who doesn’t experience romantic attraction). The two are separate things, and the differentiation between them is practically Asexuality 101. This quote in particular jolted me:
“Taking advice from a woman who, since the age of eleven, had been pursuing someone who wasn’t interested in sex was definitely a bad idea.”
The implication here is that no one would want to be in a romantic relationship without sex, which is not great for any romantic asexuals reading the book and part of why I wouldn’t recommend it to ace readers looking for representation. Also, Kevin never says anything about how he experiences asexuality (for instance, I know aces who do choose to have sex), and the narrator just makes a whole lot of assumptions. Kevin also exits the stage about half way through the novel and felt almost more of a plot device than a character.
From a general representation stand point, there are a few other things to note. I really wish Ellie wouldn’t have kept referring to her friend Asian friend Iris as a “China doll.” Adding the words “I know it’s racist, but” don’t in any way negate the racism. It was also disturbing how Mark’s account of the time he almost murdered his disabled father was used to gather sympathy for Mark. For not murdering his dad and continuing to care for him, Ellie remarks that he’s a good person. The entire passage just felt really ableist.
The book might have been able to overcome these flaws if everything else about it was good. Unfortunately it was so-so at best. The main problem is that the plotting just isn’t very well done and the book does not feel well constructed. The pacing is all over the place, and it generally feels clumsy. It didn’t help either that I disliked Mark, the love interest. He spent the beginning of the book being a jerk, like casting spells to manipulate Ellie’s memory. At least he got called out on it.
Anyway, I don’t entirely regret reading Guardian of the Dead. It kept crossing my radar for ace rep, so now I’ve at least read it and am done with it. Plus, I did like the New Zealand setting. On the whole, however, it’s not a book I’d recommend.