Ah, making my way through the Lodestar finalists has been a great pleasure so far. With only one book left to read (T. Kingfisher’s A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking), I can already say that this year offers a brilliant ballot and ranking these books will be a tough job. Elatsoe was different from the other finalists in that it reads more like a Middle Grade book than YA. I don’t know if that was intended or if it’s just my personal impression but it didn’t make the book any less charming. But maybe a tad forgettable?
by Darcie Little Badger
Published: Levine Querido, 2020
eBook: 368 pages
My rating: 6.5/10
Opening line: Ellie bought the life-sized plastic skull at a garage sale (the goth neighbors were moving to Salem, and they could not fit an entire Halloween warehouse into their black van).
Imagine an America very similar to our own. It’s got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream.
There are some differences. This America been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.
Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered, in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry. The picture-perfect facade of Willowbee masks gruesome secrets, and she will rely on her wits, skills, and friends to tear off the mask and protect her family.
Ellie is seventeen years old and can call animal spirits back from the dead. Her ghost dog, Kirby, is her constant companion and not only a Very Good Boy but also quite useful when it comes to sensing bad stuff happening. After Kirby has a freak-out, Ellie and her family find out that her cousin, Trevor, has died in a car accident. But Trevor visits Ellie in a dream/vision and tells her that he has, in fact, been murdered by a man named Abe Allerton from Willowbee. He asks her to protect his wife and small child and to bring justice to Allerton for what he has done. So Ellie’s murder investigation/adventure begins…
First of all, let me say that I grew to like this book a lot but I found it hard to find my way into it at first. Sure, the synopsis says this particular version of America is only similar to ours, but has magic and stuff. But it took me a while to find my footing with the world building because it wasn’t quite clear how much or what kind of magic. New mythological creatures or fantasy elements kept coming up whenever appropriate or convenient for the plot and there didn’t appear to be any rules. There’s ghosts and vampires, suddenly there are also fairy rings (which are used for transportation across the country and that’s super cool, if you ask me), but then there are different kinds of magic as well that were never mentioned before.
I know this isn’t supposed to be an Epic Fantasy but I still like a little bit of foreshadowing or at least a mention or two of an element that will be important later. Darcie Little Badger just went with the flow and told her story and whatever magic was needed at a certain point would be introduced and explained at that point, and not before. It doesn’t make the book bad, by any means, but it is a matter of personal taste. And I wasn’t a fan.
I was, however, a fan of the story in general and the murder mystery in particular. The solution to the mystery is impossible to figure out – because the author doesn’t give out any information that could let us deduce anything – but I still found that things fell into place quite cleverly. Ellie and her friend Jay research Abe Allerton and try to find a way to convince the authorities that he’s a murderer, and during that research, they collect a whole lot of interesting information, newspaper clippings from the past, anecdotes, pictures, and so on. When Ellie figured out what’s going on, it gave me this “of coooourse” moment, like I should have seen it coming. As mentioned above, I couldn’t have seen it coming but the magical and real world aspects fit together so well that I found it utterly satisfying anyway.
As for the characters, they were… mostly cute. I wouldn’t say they are the book’s strongest suit. Ellie, although said to be 17 years old, reads like a much younger girl. I kept picturing her as a 12-14 year old. It’s not so much that she is particularly immature or anything but her interests and the way she talks and behaves just came across as super innocent and young. The same goes for her friend Jay. They are a team of adorable young sleuths but definitely didn’t feel like 17-year-olds. I think the dialogue is partly to blame for that. I found most of the dialogue – not just between the teenagers but also between Ellie and her parents – a bit unnatural. Ellie’s parents were weirdly okay with her dangerous plans and ideas, and at times it felt like she was the parent in that family, making the decisions, and her mom just got to follow along for the ride and occasionally express concern. The dialogue was usually comprised of short lines and probably more what people would actually talk like. Unfortunately, the way people talk in real life doesn’t make for good reading. For example, repeating something your conversation partner has just said may happen a lot in real life, but in a novel, it feels strange and wrong.
The good thing about the short lines is that it makes the book super easy to read and follow. It was also only throught the dialogue that any humor came across. The character’s don’t really get all that much personality so I found it refreshing whenever Ellie would make a joke. Ellie, Jay, and Jay’s soon-to-be brother in law (and also vampire) Al were the most fleshed-out characters. Ellie’s parents are just there but don’t really do much until the end and I got the feeling the author didn’t quite know how to get them out of the way for the kids to have their own adventure. That said, the good guy characters were all easy to like, the villain was so evil that he was easy to hate and sometimes it’s nice to read a book with such clearly divided camps, where good can triumph over evil.
But despite these weaknesses, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the book, because I really did! I am, of course, automatically comparing it to the other Lodestar finalists which is probably why my inner wannabe critic is acting up. It’s a great story that incorporates mythology in intriguing ways, but it also feels rather childish and simple, and resolved almost too easily. Which again makes me think it might be intended for a younger audience.
Ellie (which, by the way, is short for Elatsoe) and her family are Lipan Apache and although this is not a very big thing in the book, it is part of who she is and comes up several times, and for good reasons as well. But mostly, we get to hear stories about Six Great – Ellie’s six-times great grandmother and something of a legend – and her adventures and feats. These stories were lovely and so are the illustrations by Rovina Cai! Some of the stories are told by Ellie’s mother, some Ellie remembers for herself, some come up in her dreams, but they all show how important family is to Ellie and how knowledge and magic has been passed on over many generations. And while Ellie has a ghost dog named Kirby, Six Great had a whole pack plus a woolly mammoth. Again, I had hoped for more world building because I’d really like to know where that mammoth goes when it’s not called by Six Great – does it slip back to the Underworld? Does it have to physically (although invisibly) find a place here on Earth to go and wait? Ah, this is not the kind of book that spends any time answering those questions. It’s about a girl solving a murder with the help of her family and friends.
As cute as this story was, because the characters are kept quite vauge and the world building changes is a bit haphazard, I never really felt immersed in the story. I appreciated the ideas, especially when it comes to the way magic is used, and the rituals to make sure dead humans stay dead and don’t come back as vengeful ghosts. And I had fun racing through the pages, watching Ellie bring justice to the bad guy. But rather than be on this adventure with Ellie, I watched from the outside. We’ll see how the book holds up in my memory but I have the suspicion that, because of my lack of emotional connection, it will end up as a fun little adventure that I won’t remember very well in a few months.
MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Pretty good