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.
Title: Elatsoe | Author: Darcie Little Badger | Publisher: Levine Querido | Pub. Date: August 25, 2020 | Pages: 368 | ISBN13: 9781646140053 | Genre: Fantasy | Language: English | Source: Purchased | Starred Review
Elatsoe was included in Time Magazine’s recent article covering the 100 best fantasy books of all time, and with good reason. Author Darcie Little Badger has created an alternate America with some intriguing elements. Title character Elatsoe, who goes by Ellie, is one of the most memorable characters I’ve met this year. She can raise animal ghosts. Her ghost dog is a regular character throughout the story. Ellie’s powers are comparable to a famous ancestor of hers, and they just might get her into trouble. In that respect, one of Ellie’s arcs in the story is coming to terms with the fact that abilities aren’t always assets. Hers could prove a liability. Teens often feel they’re invincible and don’t always fully process the risks they face, and this is something Ellie has to come to terms with when her abilities put her in danger.
Ellie has a bad feeling when something unusual happens, and fears for her parents’ safety. Her premonition and the ghost dog in her bedroom, introduce her abilities and set the stage for her to use her powers throughout the story. She has a close friend named Jay with powers and privileges of their own. In a different YA, it might soon be clear the two are meant to be more than friends, but Ellie has another distinct difference from typical YA protagonists: she’s asexual. It was refreshing to read a story that wasn’t pushing two characters into a relationship, and it was refreshing to see a poised character who was comfortable with her sexuality and didn’t feel pressured to change.
Ellie is Indigenous, and information about her people and their beliefs and customs is sprinkled into the story. It never feels like you’re being bombarded with a lesson; it’s organic, and it adds to the character development and the character’s arc. Jay’s sister is dating a vampire, and Jay’s parents aren’t happy about this. Ellie is more open-minded, and the story prompts her own learning curve about vampires and their history as well. And all of these learning curves intersect with the plot in ways that are unexpected and rewarding.
In Elatsoe, we also get a story about family. So many stories rely on familiar narratives about family conflict to drive the character development or the plot. Not here. Ellie’s parents are loving and supportive. Their decisions are fueled by concern for her safety. And when tragedy does strike, Ellie and her parents immediately offer support to the family members affected, which becomes the catalyst for the primary plot. Ellie’s convinced her cousin’s death wasn’t an accident, and she turns into an amateur sleuth as she tries to put the pieces together. Her parents are conflicted because they’re concerned for her safety, but also want justice for their family member. This contributes to the tension in the story. It’s easy to understand their concerns, and it’s also easy to understand that it can be scary to let your child (who is almost an adult) take risks. At the same time, there’s pride, because they’ve raised a child who is compassionate and brave.
Ellie’s world may have some critical differences from ours, but other elements remain the same. She deals with racism and secrets that threaten her safety, and the safety of others she loves.
Sometimes, stories that speak to contemporary issues can feel heavy handed, or preachy. Elatsoe never does. It organically weaves Ellie’s realities into the narrative to drive the story and the character development.
One other takeaway from Elatsoe. This is no lone wolf who is out to right wrongs on her own. She understands her limitations and the benefits of having support, and is willing to ask for help when she needs to. This strengthens the plot and keeps Elatsoe from employing well-worn tropes common in amateur sleuth stories.
I don’t know if Elatsoe is intended to launch a series, but I truly hope we see Ellie and Jay back when they launch their business.
You can find this book at many retailers via clicking on the appropriate link on Goodreads. (Buying direct from retailers is a good way to support indie authors); however, in the spirit of supporting literacy programs, we would like to point out that you may be able to purchase this book through BetterWorldBooks.