This YA supernatural thriller is a huge leap forward in quality from Healey’s first novel, Guardian of the Dead – and I liked Guardian. Its solid characterization, precise depiction of emotion, and the slow insinuation of evil magic into a modern New Zealand town reminded me of Margaret Mahy’s classic novel The Changeover.

Half-Maori teenager Keri likes to plan for all contingencies. But her older brother’s shocking suicide shatters her carefully organized world, leaving her grieving and baffled. Then she learns that his death is part of a pattern. Every year in her lovely tourist trap town, a teenage boy with younger siblings and no history of depression commits suicide, just like clockwork. Or someone else’s careful plan.

Joined by socially awkward Samoan teenager Sione, who is also mourning an older brother, and brash musician Janna (whose band is called Vikings to the Left), Keri begins to investigate the pattern of deaths. Each of the three main characters gets their own POV, which was well-done and added a lot to my enjoyment of the book. (It was a bit distracting that Keri’s was in first person and the other two were in third.)

In Guardian, I appreciated the inclusivity but felt that some of the execution was heavy-handed. Here, characters of various classes, races, cultures, and sexual orientations are handled in a much more natural manner, giving the book and the characters realism, richness, and depth. Another thing that bothered me in Guardian was how a number of likable characters were pushed to the side and literally not allowed by other characters to take an active part in the unfolding story. Here, everyone of importance has their own story, and demands – and gets – a part in the powerful, moving climax.

The depiction of grief was sensitive and realistic, the story was exciting, and I came to care a lot about the characters. (Sione was my favorite. What can I say, I am a sucker for shy boys.) While the general outline of the evil plot was predictable, the details of how the story unfolded were not. I was not expecting the gut-punch of a certain late reveal, though in retrospect it was quite thoroughly foreshadowed.

Spoilers welcome in comments. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoiled.

The Shattering.
Ellie Spencer is a tall, fat Pakeha (white) teenage girl with a black belt in tae kwon do, who feels like a misfit in boarding school. A serial killer is stalking New Zealand, making the night-time trip between her dorm and the theatre, where she is the fight choreographer for a student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, more than normally scary. And then the mysterious and devastatingly handsome student Mark starts mind-whammying her in a misfired attempt to protect her from mysterious dangers…

In some ways this is old-school urban fantasy a la Emma Bull or Charles de Lint, in which myths (Maori, in this case) turn out to be completely real and present in a modern-day setting. A number of those had a multicultural cast and lots of sex-positivity and many different types of strong female characters, which this novel has as well.

I appreciate the inclusivity of the story, which encompasses race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, body types, and I’m sure more issues that I’m forgetting, though the depiction is occasionally a bit heavy-handed. After introducing the fat heroine, asexual Maori best friend, lesbian sister, Muslim roommate, Chinese-New Zealander director, and Eritrean professor in quick succession, the mention of Ellie’s tae kwon do teacher, Master Rosenberg-Katz, did make me snicker.

It’s not that it’s inherently funny for a Jewish woman to teach an Asian martial art – I have met lots of Jewish women, including myself, who study Asian martial arts. It was the hyphenated name – not merely a Jewish female martial arts teacher, but a Jewish female martial arts teacher who presumably took on a hyphenated surname when she married another Jew - which took it from realistic to fourth wall-breaking “let’s get in another type of person often ignored in YA fantasy” to me. Or maybe I’m a privileged jerk for even thinking that, let alone laughing. (The choice is yours!)

I liked Ellie a lot, and I also liked many of the supporting characters, particularly Iris, the student director with lethal high-heeled shoes. I don’t know anything about Maori mythology so this is completely based on my impression of the book as a reading experience, but the myth and magic was interesting and vivid. After a turning point, Ellie begins to see the entire world overlaid with the myths she grew up with, and that’s beautifully depicted and numinous. And all the theatre bits are great.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel a lot, but I had some problems with it. Without spoilers, some of my favorite characters completely dropped out of the story for long stretches, which was justified in the plot but which frustrated me. I liked what we got of Ellie and Mark’s relationship, but I would have liked to see more of it, and to see them forced to deal more with some issues which are only revealed toward the end. In general, the novel felt very controlled, including in places where I wanted more emotional rawness.

Since details on those issues and some other problems are spoilery and involve both speculating about the author’s intent and pointing out how I would preferred the story to go, both of which annoy many people, I’m putting them under a cut tag. If you don’t want to be annoyed, you have the option of not clicking.

Guardian of the Dead

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