In a slightly different America, magic and the supernatural are routine: the federal government regulates the use of fairy circles, powers are passed down like traditions, and vampires are relatively ordinary––if ostracized. This is the world of Darcie Little Badger’s debut YA novel, Elatsoe. It takes some cues from fabulism, where stories more-or-less belong to the contemporary label, and magic, generally a mundane feature of society, takes a subtle back seat, but in stakes, mystery, and scientific sensibilities, Elatsoe is something all its own. A detective puzzle. A ghost story. An adventure. A family reckoning.
At curtain, we meet Ellie, short for Elatsoe, and her dog, Kirby. (And yes, miraculously, amidst everything else, Elatsoe also manages to be a touching girl-and-her-dog story.) But Kirby is more than what only occasionally meets the eye: he’s been dead for five years, and the canine playing with Ellie on page one is an oft-invisible ghost, one Ellie learned to summon at twelve, when members of her Lipan Apache family learn the family secret, along with its corresponding unbreakable rule: the ghosts of animals, both ancient and recently deceased, are fair game. But the human dead are fearsome things, not to be tampered with.
When her cousin Trevor dies in the eerie town of Willowbee, Texas, it’s ruled an accident. But his parting words, given to Ellie in a dream, tell a different story. After this revelation, the murder mystery plot of Elatsoe sets off at a fast clip, and Ellie’s keen eyes, with the close help of her family and a witty best friend, uncover the dark secrets of a too-perfect small town.
In the uncovering of Elatsoe’s plot developments, one key quality of our seventeen-year-old investigator stands out right away: Ellie, uniquely for YA literature, doesn’t stand alone. The nature of Darcie Little Badger’s fantasy world confers a surprising advantage that most paranormal and fantastical circumstances do not: unearthing the truth about Trevor’s death is a family affair, as are Ellie’s dealings with ghosts––we get to see it test Ellie and her family together, and the more dangerous obstacles are faced by a team, rather than one intrepid teenager. Elatsoe reflects, quite generously, the reality that teenagers can, and do, rely on their families, and it doesn’t make them any less capable. A crisis, with the usual friction of an I-want-to-help vs. you-should-stay-safe dispute, doesn’t have to mark an exception.
Connected with this are the largely low-stakes, research-based sleuthing techniques Ellie uses to get a grip on the situation––aside from the paranormal leads. And, yes, this is a very niche thing to get excited about, but the way Little Badger skillfully incorporates history into the proceedings lends so much richness to the novel, injecting intensity and urgency into gaps in the town’s record where unsavory details have been papered over. The revelations you can derive from an afternoon of research (and Elatsoe is filled to the brim with the nitty-gritty of afternoons of research) are the bread and butter of this novel’s truly fascinating process. What’s more, they’re genuinely feasible for our young protagonist who’s been told to stay out of trouble, rendering a strikingly grounded central plot against a setting of magic and wonder.
Little Badger’s worldbuilding is gorgeously fluid. Details emerge organically and so much of it feels unexplored––not in a wasted-potential way, but in a sense that’s true to life, where every novel has side characters with lives lived mostly off the page, and Elatsoe gives the tantalizing impression that there are as many forms of magic as there are cultures, and what we see here is the tiniest impression of a world as genuinely varied as our own.
The traditions in Ellie’s family are also tied to a rich history of story, with tales of Ellie’s Six-Great (eight generations back) grandmother making occasional appearances. The narrative threads of Elatsoe feel like so much more than themselves, connected by storytelling to the distant, legendary past, and tied by Ellie’s skill to the ghosts of a far earlier time.
Elatsoe has adventure, fairy circles, and ghost dogs, but the coolest thing in it by far is an abundance of creatures from the Ice Age and beyond. In an act of unabashed nerdiness, Little Badger uses the paranormal elements of her creation to awaken through fiction a mammoth, a trilobite, and whales of eons past, an indulgence that’s incredibly rare in speculative fiction, but so overwhelmingly cool that every work without it present is suddenly operating at a massive loss.
The most impressive quality of Elatsoe, though, is that it uses the strange and divine precisely how our world would use it, running the gamut from beauty to terror. It has magic that exploits the natural world and takes advantage of the vulnerable. It has wondrous but tightly-guarded secrets. It has dogs that are loved long after their deaths. It has an expansive sense of time that’s only broadened by dances with the metaphysical. Elatsoe, in these terms, is miraculous: it brings the faraway close, and somehow grounds the lofty without crushing it.