The title is what originally drew me to this book. And then the cover, which is gorgeous…and I originally thought it was a girl wandering through snow drifts (which made me think of Little Red Riding Hood, for some reason) and actually is a girl walking with/through a crowd of ghost dogs. So I was way off there, haha, but it was still super eye-catching. Honestly after I realized it wasn’t a Red Riding Hood retelling, LOL, and was actually a “similar to our world, but with magic” sort of situation, I was, if anything, even more interested.
“…culture was the most important part of belonging. […] …one of those complex, deeply personal matter of identity with no one-size-fits-all answer.”
Ellie (short for Elatsoe, which means “hummingbird” in Lipan Apache) lives in Texas in a world very similar to our own. Except, in her world, she has the ability, passed down through generations of her family, to raise ghosts of dead animals. (Cue the adorable ghost pet dog named Kirby.) When Ellie’s cousin, Trevor, dies suddenly in a car crash, he comes to her in a dream and tells her that it wasn’t an accident, that he was murdered. So, with the help of her best friend Jay, the support of her family, and with backup from some old family legends, Ellie dives into an investigation of what really happened and the supernaturally strange town of Willowbee where it all took place.
Let me start with the stuff I loved. First, the storytelling! I loved all the myths and legends arounds Ellie’s Six Great grandmother. The way they were lovingly passed generation to generation is so heart-warming; I loved the family pride aspect and the way her story (and an understanding of the benefits and dangers of their ghost-raising abilities) unfolded alongside Ellie’s as a really compelling stylistic device, but not in the typical alternating POV way (and I appreciated that unique-ness as well). Plus, Six Great was a badass (I always love a badass female character). I also really enjoyed all the glimpses into Lipan Apache tradition and beliefs. Even though what happened to Ellie’s cousin is, at base, a super tragic thing to build the story around, learning about respect for the dead and how that looks like culturally for Ellie’s family was very cool.
Another aspect that I was super into was, as expected, the superimposed magic into a recognizable world. Reading about ghosts and vampires and other fantastical beings/abilities as a “normal” part of life is one of my favorite things, because I always wish it was really real. I want to mention too the key plot themes related to colonization, stealing Indigenous land, and the violence against Indigenous peoples that is a direct parallel with the real history of the US. The author does a really phenomenal job weaving those into the heart of the story, everything from the family history to the knowledge of the land and the way the paranormal fits into that to the plot-line of the mystery surrounding Trevor’s murder and what really happened there. And last, but certainly not least, the chapter illustrations by Rovina Cai are just stunning. Even though I listened to the audiobook, I checked the hard copy out from the library specifically to see the chapter art (based, of course, on my reaction to the cover) and it was absolutely the right call. So freaking beautiful and perfectly in line, style and aura-wise, for the story.
I do have to mention a few things that were sort of misses for me though, as a reader. The biggest thing, and it’s unfortunate because it really colored the entire reading (well, listening, since I went with the audiobook), is that the writing itself was really immature. Despite the main characters being written as almost done with high school, the book felt like it was written for a much younger audience. And it often seemed like the dialogue and transitions between scenes were clumsy. It just read really young and really choppy to me. Honestly, it sucks because in this case, very similar to Gods of Jade and Shadow, I absolutely loved the story and topics and everything else, but the less-than-solid writing really took me out of the moment at a few critical times. Also, while I loved that there was some representation for things I see less often, like male cheerleaders and college vs not (from a cost-benefit standpoint) and aro-ace rep, it felt…almost unnatural. It was almost like the author wanted to have it in there, but had trouble making it flow into the rest of the story, so she mashed it into some awkward “telling” dialogue, instead of a more comfortable “showing” of it. Anyways, I’m super glad it was there in a general way, but would have loved to see it more deeply and naturally incorporated.
Overall, I did have a good time reading this novel. It was a solid debut and kept me entertained and interested for sure. I could totally see this, Elatsoe’s paranormal mystery-solving, turning into a whole series (reminiscent, in some ways, of Schwab’s middle grade series Cassidy Blake/City of Ghosts series), which could be really cool. However, even if that doesn’t happen, if you are looking for a fun and fast little mystery, with some ~light~ paranormal aspects and a lovely nod to Lipan Apache tradition and heritage, I’d definitely recommend this one.