Fantasy Novel Review: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

As part of my branching out in my sci-fi and fantasy reading, I’m reading a bit more YA than I used to. Elatsoe (eh-lat-so-ay) by Darcie Little Badger is a pretty new offering, but I’d already seen a couple glowing reviews, it’s been a while since I read a book with a Native main character, and there was no waiting list at the library, so it seemed like a good one to try, and it certainly did not disappoint.

Elatsoe, who generally goes by Ellie, is a 17-year-old Lipan Apache girl growing up in North Texas in a world very much like contemporary America, only with a lot more in the way of the supernatural (for instance, driving through Iowa is apparently a good way to get attacked by scarecrows). She’s busy getting ready for her senior year of high school when she is visited by the spirit of her cousin, just before he passes to the realm of the dead. He was murdered, he says, and she must protect his family from the murderer. So Ellie, her Mom, and her ghost dog make their way to South Texas to try to prove that her cousin’s death was no accident and bring the killer to justice. Their task quickly proves more difficult than expected, when they realize that the murderer is a one of the richest, most powerful, and best-liked members of a community that will go to great lengths to protect him.

While discussions of diversity in fiction can sometimes veer into the abstract or turn to box-checking, Elatsoe is a wonderfully concrete example of why it’s so valuable to read stories from different perspectives. Ellie may be a teen girl fighting evil, but she doesn’t read like a standard YA protagonist, and neither is this a standard YA story—Elatsoe diverges from the genre norms in so many refreshing ways. It is steeped in stories, with tales of Ellie’s sixth great grandmother’s heroic battles against various monsters interspersed throughout the narrative. It is family-centric, with Ellie not only trying to protect her cousin’s family, not only using the same magic than ran strongly through her line since Six Great, but also acting in accord with her loving and supportive parents. And there’s no love triangle, because Ellie is asexual and faces no pressure from her friends and family to be otherwise. I’m not Native and can’t speak to the nuances of the representation, but the author is, and I assume she treated her own culture with respect. What I can see is a fresh take on the “girl fights evil” storyline and more wholesome relationships than any three young adult novels put together. Ellie’s abilities and her understand of how best to use them are informed by her culture, but when it’s time to go out on a limb, her parents are right there making sure she has the support she needs. It’s a true breath of fresh air in a genre known for absent or callous authority figures.

As for the rest? Elatsoe isn’t a book you read for the subtlety or the intricacies of the plot, which is relatively straightforward, but it’s fast-moving, engaging, and delivers some powerful anti-colonial themes. Ellie is an interesting and likable character, and she has a solid cast around her, from her family to her best friend Jay and his family (note: I support Jays in fantasy—we don’t get them often) to her ghost dog Kirby. Her friends are supportive, and they have a silly sense of humor that feels more like actual friends joking around than it does carefully crafted one-liners. And Kirby is portrayed so well that I, a reader who usually struggles to get attached to animal companions, genuinely cared about his part of the story. There is one brief point-of-view switch late in the book that I don’t think quite works—it doesn’t really add much perspective, and I’m pretty sure it introduces a minor continuity error—but overall, this is a refreshing take on a common theme, easy-to-read and really enjoyable.

Recommended if you like: girls fighting evil, loving fantasy families, story-heavy lore, Native protagonists, asexual protagonists.

Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.

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