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“Elatsoe” by Darcie Little Badger

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Darcie Little Badger’s debut novel, Elatsoe, has garnered a great deal of praise. It’s been named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, Publishers Weekly, and Tor.com. TIME even included it on their list of the 100 best fantasy books of all time. Like Little Badger herself, the heroine is of Lipan Apache heritage. When her cousin dies under suspicious circumstances, she’s determined to discover the truth. Luckily, she doesn’t have to do it alone: in addition to the support of her family and best friend, she can raise the ghosts of animals for protection or companionship.

The setting of the story is one in which many different types of magic exist. Little Badger does a great job of introducing these elements in an organic way. She makes the reader aware of them as they become relevant to the story, and explains them to the degree that’s needed for the reader to understand what’s going on. This avoids the dreaded infodump but also does something that I think is even more important in a fantasy novel: it cultivates a sense of mystery and wonder about the magic. We know enough to have a good idea of what the protagonists (and villains) can or can’t do, but we don’t know everything. Little Badger creates the sense that everything we’re seeing is part of a larger world, with other stories going on around the main one. While the story being told here comes to a satisfying conclusion, I hope Little Badger returns to this world. My only complaint about the magic was that I wished her best friend Jay’s own magical talents had played a larger role in the plot.

History is a strong theme of Elatsoe. The technique of raising animal ghosts was developed by Elatsoe’s six-times-great-grandmother, referred to in the story as Six-Great. But while her magical talent was formidable, it isn’t the most important thing about her. She was also a woman of great courage and integrity, and even so many generations later, she’s still an inspiration to her descendants. Elatsoe draws strength from her as she confronts dangerous situations. Beyond that, Elatsoe’s ability to raise ghosts gives her a personal connection to the history of her home. And of course, the history of the Lipan Apache people is discussed as well.

Each chapter is headed by Rovina Cai’s illustrations. These are beautifully done and tell a story of their own. I read this as an ebook, but the illustrations made me wish I’d picked up a physical copy.

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