REVIEW: Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger

5/5 stars — a genre-blending fantasy adventure

Elatsoe is Darcie Little Badger’s debut, a young adult novel featuring seventeen-year-old Elatsoe’s quest to bring her cousin’s murderer to justice. With her ghost dog Kirby and her best friend Jay at her side, Ellie sleuths out the secrets of Willowbee, Texas…and one of its most powerful and sinister inhabitants.

Combining the tone of a kid detective novel with unique fantasy elements and family stories of Ellie’s Lipan Apache Six-Great Grandmother’s exploits, Elatsoe balances suspense and adventure. More than anything else, it evoked the feeling I had reading mystery books in my early teens—despite touching on heavy topics like grief and death, it reads “younger” to me than much of current YA, and not in a bad way. Ellie herself is certainly an emotionally mature protagonist for seventeen, so I suspect the young-YA impression comes from the general voice/tone and maybe also the notable lack of family, friend, or relationship drama typical in media featuring teens.

Family is a strong through-line in Elatsoe. In her dealings with mysteries both mundane and supernatural, Ellie relies on not only her parents but her extended family and ancestors. Like her Six-Great and her grandmother, she often uses her family’s ability to summon and command ghost animals. Her parents are available (physically and emotionally) to encourage and caution her, and she’s never hesitant to go to them with concerns and hunches. In a genre that often relies on the absence or ignorance of close family, it was refreshing to see Ellie’s parents believe even claims that might seem far-fetched to an outsider, like knowing who murdered her cousin. Even Lenore, who married into the family, can count on Ellie and her parents’ support: they all show up for her and her baby after her husband dies. Even in cases where there’s danger, Ellie’s parents treat her a someone who can be helpful—they all show up together to do what needs to be done.

Ellie’s rapport with her best friend Jay is similarly smooth sailing. Jay is a big personality—a base on the cheer squad, getting over a recent breakup with extravagant gestures, and with his own big family to call on for help—yet he and Ellie are written as a team that clicks in that perfect way that long-time friends do. (Side note: I love that Jay is demonstrably a boy who’s attracted to girls, but Ellie’s asexual and there’s never any weirdness about him wanting to date her and being resentful, which there easily could have been.) Jay always comes through to help Ellie, first by doing research and then by showing up in person and bringing assorted family members along.

One of my favorite aspects of Little Badger’s storytelling is the way she writes about Ellie being ace and Indigenous. First, I love that Ellie’s asexuality is mentioned by name in the book, and she talks to her family and friends about never wanting to date or get married without any pushback. (Based on the way Ellie’s described, I think she might also be aromantic, but that part’s my inference, not canon.) The difficulties Ellie navigates as a person of color are discussed with similar frankness, in a way that invites readers who may relate to empathize, rather than a way that panders to whiteness. For example, Ellie experiences anti-indigenous racism from a woman at a roadside museum, and even as Ellie gets angry, she bends to the necessity of taking precautions to show she’s not doing anything bad (staying away from display cases, making sure to get a receipt). She reflects that her white friend Jay moves through life without similar obstacles. Finally, there’s the tongue-in-cheek accuracy of Jay’s “Oh, sure, I know [the story of Icarus]. We learn about the ancient Greeks every year,” followed by Ellie saying she never learns about Six-Great or any of her other ancestors in school.

The main antagonist takes that thread of colonizer nastiness and runs with it. Part of why he’s so scary is that he’s a well-connected, wealthy white man with friends in law enforcement. Ellie mentions that she doesn’t trust the police to get justice for her cousin because they often fail Indigenous people, so she and her family have to investigate on their own despite the danger. At the end, the revelation that everyone in Willowbee knew what Abe Allerton did and tacitly allowed/helped with it is a great mirror of how many people stand by and, through inaction, allow racism and other bad things to happen to disadvantaged people as long as they benefit.

Fighting monsters both human and inhuman runs in Ellie’s family, as shown through interspersed stories about Ellie’s Six-Great, a monster-fighting hero who had a pack of ghost dogs. Even though the stories are from a long time ago, they have immediate bearing on the present story; it feels like Ellie knows each of her ancestors and older family members like she’s met them in real life. Between these accounts and Ellie’s own encounters, we see a picture of the world Little Badger has created: one we recognize, only with monsters and magic. The worldbuilding really explores the details of even “known” things like vampirism: one of the characters is a vampire who prefers the curse to being human, because he had chronic pain and would happily trade it for vampiric inconveniences. Also, there are lots of cool details like fairy ring transport—basically teleportation through rings of certain species of mushrooms if you have fairy blood. I especially enjoyed the little touches of horror in some of the stories of Lipan monsters, the theme of leeches, and the lurking threat of human ghosts. I really like how human ghosts are explained as imprints of vengeance, not the actual people at all. It makes them so much more terrifying!

Some tidbits I especially enjoyed that don’t fit above

  • something I would’ve loved to read as a kid to see a part of myself reflected on-page: “Ellie’s skin was prone to hyperpigmentation; every scrape, scratch, and blemish left a deep brown impression for months.”

  • Ellie wants to be either a paranormal investigator or a paleontologist (fitting, since she can wake the ghosts of even extinct species. (I’m literally begging for a ‘ten years later’ sequel where we follow Ellie as a PI or paleontologist.)

  • Ellie’s mom banishing a threatening vampire by kicking him off her people’s land: “This is my home, my people’s home!” Vivian shouted. “You aren’t welcome along the Kunétai!”

  • this helpful pronunciation guide: “Eh-lat-so-ay”

  • Ellie cutting her hair at the end was very poetic and fitting

I thoroughly enjoyed Elatsoe and I’m an instant fan of Little Badger’s writing. This book will appeal to readers of YA urban fantasy (as long as they don’t go in expecting romance) and has cross-genre appeal as a suspense story with supernatural elements. I listened to the audiobook and read the physical book afterward; I recommend either/both, since Kinsale Hueston’s narration adds dimension to the story and Rovina Cai’s chapter header illustrations in the book are gorgeous!

Content warnings: death of a family member; semi-graphic description of fatal injuries; grief/mourning; brief scene involving body horror (hair); mentions of anti-indigenous racism

"Imagine an America very similar to our own. It's got homework, best friends, and pistachio ice cream."

This is the start of Elatsoe's blurb, and pistachio ice cream is Ellie's favorite! Because I loved this book so much, I had to try this treat for myself. I'm not the biggest pistachio fan, but I'm with Ellie—it's delicious!

A hand holds a waffle ice cream cone topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream.