Cloaks and generic proper nouns, David Hill

A Necklace of Souls
R L Stedman
HarperCollins, $25.00,
ISBN 9781775540069

Ghosts of Parihaka
David Hair
HarperCollins, $25.00,
ISBN 9781869509233

Cattra’s Legacy
Anna MacKenzie
Longacre, $20.00,
ISBN 9781775533184

Phantom of Terawhiti
Des Hunt
HarperCollins, $20.00,
ISBN 9781869509545

Whenever I’m taking a workshop of aspiring authors any age(s) between 8-18, and ask them what they like writing, the answers come in a predictable pulse: “fantasy … personal feelings … fantasy … anything … poetry … steam punk … fantasy … fantasy”.

So that particular f word is definitely genre-du-jour, and as these four exemplars show, certain aspirants from certain workshops of the 1980s or (ahem) the 1950s have been and gone and done it.

OK, every work of fiction is fantasy: invented (usually/partly) characters; imagined (ditto) events, settings, motives and results. But the genre as generally understood comes with certain trad trappings. There’s alternative or no technology; a selection of talismans or secret writings; variations on space-time; discoveries of psychic or kinetic powers; generic proper nouns such as “The Crossing”, “The One”, “The Guardian”. Add a preference for swords over Scuds, and beards over buzzcuts. Oh, and cloaks. Cloaks are big in fantasy. It’s a measure of my literary limitations that I’ve never managed to include a decent cloak.

Lesser fantasy lapses into stereotypes and archaisms. It uses sorcery when it can’t build a sequence. Better examples construct satisfying if self-referential systems of cause and effect, and characters who avoid saying “By the Blade of Zaalxgooth”. The quartet here incline to the second group.

Rachel Stedman’s first YA novel brings us high-bred Dana, a feisty pubescent wench who has to put right what adults have let go wrong. Alongside her, in an improbable but appealing partnership, stands sturdy Will, plague orphan, apprentice baker and unexpectedly ace archer, who ends up in the castle with plumbing where fractious Dana is confined.

Shadowy forces of all sorts threaten them and The Kingdom of the Rose (see generic nouns above). Against these, our twosome have their own hard-learned combat skills, Dana’s useful realisation that two hands make light work – provided it’s golden light – a couple of hi-octane talismans in the form of carved wooden beads and a potent necklace, and a governess who bears absolutely no resemblance to Mary Poppins.

In a time and place where life is often nasty, short, maintained by slave labour and ended by sharp steel, and where “winners are people who have enough food”, Will and Dana face journeys, momentous dreams, tests, intimations of parallel worlds. A lot of stock characters contribute: tinkers have the second sight; a ferryman grumbles folksy advice; an aged cripple mouths wise saws. Things build to a climax of graphic battle scenes, with the odd decapitating monster, waterborne invaders, energy transfers, more golden light, and a rather unattractive reduction of soldiers to sword-fodder.

Stedman can hold a plot and a big cast together. Dana and Will are engaging protagonists, with textured inner lives as well as telling outer sword-thrusts. A rather sweet canoodling rears its hormonal head. They mostly sound and act like real, if kingdom-saving, teens.

The story’s weaknesses are sins of inclusion rather than omission. The middle sections lumber occasionally; analogies and archaisms put brakes on the narrative; characters sometimes talk for the sake of style rather than plot. Faster and leaner would have been wiser. But it’s a better-than-sound debut, with multiple cloaks.

David Hair’s YA novels with their driven characters and dramatic chiaroscuro have won him audiences and acclaim in the short time he’s been publishing. I like his closeish-to-home settings. In this case it’s “The Ghost World of Aotearoa”, which grabs Matiu’s mate Riki while R is on a school trip. That pawky humour permeates Book Five (Five! That’s a structural achievement) in his sequence.

Set around 1881 Parihaka (and around 21st-century Napier, the Octagon, a Nelson motel) plus other Victorian venues, it’s packed with dreams, visions, slippings of time and place. Characters die. Then they’re tangibly alive again. Then they find themselves shot, stabbed or otherwise inconvenienced once more. Hemi, for example, has had “twenty post-death lives”. Ambitious.

The ghost world tosses up truckloads of warlocks, who moonlight as financial embezzler, Native Minister, rugby league cheat. Matiu knows them all: he’s a 17-year-old trainee tohunga and an Adept (generic nouns again), whose fingernails flare with flame in tight spots. It doesn’t stop him from getting head colds.

Four-hundred-year-old, already-dropped-dead-gorgeous Aroha has the hots for him. So has one-eyed seer, Evie of Devonport. Characters skim from one world to another the way you’d take a No 7 bus – or email an image on a cellphone, which is an approved technique. Full-on battle sequences with swords and stasis shields, the Treaty of Waitangi, Richard Pearse’s aeroplane, Larnach and his castle are included. So are multiverses, mythology, taiaha and iPod. “It’s been all on,” notes Mat at the end, with Book Six still to come.

You could quibble that it’s been all on too much of the time. The narrative would benefit from a few breaths between the breathless bits. Everything and everyone is on steroids: a typical teenage girl has “the sort of face you saw carved in marble. Her hair was a lustrous cascade of ebony.” Out of this world, man. (And she is, of course.)

There’s good guy-talk, with lots of stylistic felicities. I did like the randy adolescent lad waiting “like an unplugged appliance”. The Maori motifs are conscious but convincing. The book belts along, winking and wisecracking. You get a feather cloak, a billowing cloak and a flying cloak.

Like Stedman, Anna MacKenzie offers a gutsy girl protagonist, and a quasi-medieval setting. Hers includes cottages, goats, candles, dark-faced traders, wolves, duchies, significant beards, plus courtly salutations to Seneschal and My Lady.

Risha’s taciturn, reclusive father is dead, and abruptly she’s an “outcomer” in the village, mocked by buxom local girls, treated uncertainly by their parents. With a secret, a manuscript, and a golden brooch, she leaves in search of family and hinted-at heritage, travelling with a group of traders who inevitably include a few damaged goods. By p40 there’s already been a furtive rummager, an ambush, a kick from a mule, a hurried flight. No young reader is ever going to complain that nothing happens in MacKenzie’s work.

While in a scruffy market town, Risha experiences more of the visions that sweep upon her without warning, sees an unsettlingly familiar prisoner, and is trailed by a figure so sinister, you can almost hear the drumbeats. There’s a knifing, and another hurried flight – by boat and barrel. We get a pleasingly malevolent villain who eludes The Sitting (generic nouns are alive and exotic in this story, too), and a good bunch of good lads. From the moment you meet Muir, you know that he and Risha will eventually make sweet lute music together. The protagonist learns the weight of power, the techniques of telepathy, and how to silence a room of males by wearing her hair up.

Risha is an excellent character, authentic, creditably complex, always developing. She’s determined and hesitant, dauntless and vulnerable. She chews her nails and chews up arrogant males. She’s an able healer – even if most of her practice has been with goats. Indeed, a seam of the humour that Hair employs effectively glints through this narrative also.

MacKenzie is effective with seasons and landscapes as well. She does spray the place-names around rather a lot, though you have to like The Teeth of Sargath. There’s a plethora of personal names, too, and a fair few of the multitudinous cast are no more than a label and a startled/brooding/pensive stare. The writing can be adjectival (and adverbial) at times, and Risha just chances to overhear a lot of conversations, but the story is energetic, evocative, steps boldly across times and distances. You may not always suspend disbelief, but in a novel with so much momentum and inventiveness, that hardly seems to matter. I’m gratified to note that there’s a designer cloak, and on the cover. (Pause here to note that New Zealand children’s and YA publishers do some quite splendid covers these days.)

In the productive Des Hunt’s new novel, 12-year-old Zac is stuck in a remote farmhouse for the holidays, “with only sheep and pukeko to talk to”. He and his Dad are in hiding, thanks to a dastardly rellie, and Dad plans to take advantage of the forced seclusion to write A Book. Cue Tui Beer ad.

Set specifically and vividly on that crumpled curve of coast between Makara and Wellington, the story is full of gorse and goats and gullies, wind farms, gales that can blow a ute clean off a track. Things kick-start quickly, when Zac and his father find the wreckage of a Russian billionaire’s yacht. Among the flotsam is an enigmatic device with fang marks, and a silver drinking bowl. Strange animal paw-prints lead up through the sand. When thuggish security guards come looking, they carry guns.

It’s mystery rather than fantasy, if you discount a pet Leptailurus and Zac’s own gymnastic imagination. A clear, conventional narrative that clips along, with motifs of courage, learning, loyalty. When it seems that an exotic predator is loose near our capital, the race is on among trophy hunters, shady hard men, and the youthful forces of good.

We have another convincing young protagonist: two of them in fact. Jess the fencer’s daughter also has a leading role, which allows an engaging thread of peppy, puppy love. The rest of the cast have little complexity: adults generally mean well, though shooters get a poor press.

Phantom of Terawhiti is a technically adroit book. There’s brisk dialogue; equally brisk scene shifts; good use of such trad elements as the secret cave and the pact against grown-up authority. You know early on that things are headed for a positive ending.

Hunt is a science enthusiast and an electrifying educator. Do invite him to a school near you soon. So we hear a fair bit about marine history, wind speeds, MAF regulations, the little spotted Kiwi, and a certain animal with a 35cm tail and a sprint speed up to 80km/h. It’s painless and – for the book as well as the reader – profitable learning. Not a single cloak in this one: tsk, tsk. But a sprightly and satisfying read.

Memo for publishers to finish. The fact these novels are aimed at children doesn’t mean their readers should be addressed in childish terms. Three of the author bios here have a cutesiness that kids with their built-in bullshit detectors will sneer at very quickly. I don’t believe that’s a … fantasy on my part.


David Hill’s latest YA novel, Sinking, is published by Scholastic.


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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