Boys’ own adventures, Tina Shaw

Singing Home the Whale
Mandy Hager
Random House, $20.00, ISBN 9781775536574

Magic and Makutu
David Hair
HarperCollins, $25.00, ISBN 9781869509330

If these two titles are anything to go by, New Zealand young adult fiction is in good shape. These are two very different novels, although both integrate Māori culture into the storyline, and both feature a boy as the main protagonist.

In Singing Home the Whale, Will Jackson is a black-clad kid with piercings who is recuperating from a savage beating and a YouTube mauling that has left him with respective bouts of nausea and paranoia. He has holed up with his uncle Dean, who lives in a small community on the Pelorus Sound. One day, while out sailing in Dean’s Z-class, he meets a baby orca. Both Will and the orca are traumatised and grieving, so it is natural that they should quickly form a bond. This bond is established through song: Will loves singing Gilbert and Sullivan and opera.

Alternating with the main narrative are sections in the orca’s voice, from which we learn that Min, as Will christens the orca, has been separated from his pod after his mother was killed in the Southern Ocean by rogue whale hunters. There are clear messages here about the treatment of whales which will surely resonate with  readers. In the microcosm of this small fictional place, where people make their living from the ocean and the recession has hit hard, Will soon finds out that a baby orca isn’t welcomed by everybody. Especially not by Bruce Godsill, a local bully who owns a salmon farm, and it doesn’t help when Min tears into one of his fish tanks.

Taking inspiration from the orca named Luna born in Puget Sound in 1999 (Hager’s book is dedicated to this orca), Will learns how a First Nations tribe thought that Luna was the reincarnation of their chief. Linking this novel to Luna’s story, Nanny – a stereotypical, wizened yet spiritual Māori woman – decides that Min is the spirit of a local boy who was killed in Afghanistan.

There are several subplots in this novel, although perhaps the most important one concerns Godsill’s son, Hunter, who at first seems like a lumpish, uncommunicative boy, but is gradually revealed to be smart yet vulnerable. Hunter is big enough to take on his nasty father but, as Dean points out, “Bruce has broken him. He doesn’t have the confidence.” Hunter’s character shows the most change in this story as he confesses near the end why he has been holding himself back.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Will has a family connection to the local Māori community, and it is they he turns to when he needs help to save the orca. Along the way, there is a girl called Pania whom Will likes; old history concerning Dean; swimming and singing with the orca; a hefty fine for Will; a local who takes a pot shot at Min, injuring him; and the whanau organise a concert to raise money for Will’s fine.

Will is a complex character who must overcome his recent upsets and regain his confidence; it takes him a while to do this, and some of his angst tends to slow the narrative. It is, of course, his connection with Min which helps him come out of himself: “He truly felt as if Min understood him.” Through Min’s voice, we learn about the orca’s connection to the boy as well. These sections are an innovative idea, although the technique tends to act as a distraction from the main story while the orca, looking back from a distance of 50 years, ponders his actions as a baby:

I sensed the storm brewed by the Hungry Ones; should not have stalked those sickly salmon, no, not at all. Truth be told, I did not have the sense to shy away from such an onslaught. I was small and hungry, had no sense to spot the snares.


As events and tensions ramp up in the small community, it is obvious that Min is in danger. Ultimately, it is Hunter who comes up with a plan for Will to save the orca, while Will comes to realise that this one-horse town has become an emotional home for him.

Magic and Makutu is the sixth book in David Hair’s series of fantasy YA novels and, as he puts it, “definitely and absolutely the last one”. Since The Bone Tiki (2009) – which won Best First Book at the 2010 NZ Post Children’s Book Awards – Hair has been wowing readers with his mash-up of contemporary New Zealand and Māori legend: two parallel worlds that include magical Māori figures and the ghosts of ordinary New Zealanders.

This story is a classic quest or hero’s journey: young Matiu Douglas, an apprentice tohunga, must save the world by fathering a child with Aroha or Hine-nui-te-pō, his reward being immortality. A big ask for any 18 year old, but Mat has a few super powers and a likeable sidekick in the form of his friend, Riki.

The setting is modern New Zealand, but with a parallel universe known as Aotearoa in which the past lives on. In a delightful scene, for instance, Mat takes his mother back to early Thorndon to meet Katherine Mansfield. The more important sequence leading up to the finale is set in the original government buildings and features the dead premiers of New Zealand – Seddon, Fraser, Ballance and others (even Muldoon gets a walk-on role), all of whom pitch in when things start to get tough. It’s a great idea, and you can tell that Hair has had some fun writing this book.

As is to be expected from a quest story, there are hurdles to overcome – both physical and psychological challenges, in which Mat is tested – and an evil adversary in the form of the ironically-named Byron Kikitoa. Byron is an archetypal bad guy: he killed his own father and is completely amoral, even plotting to kill his tohunga mentor once he has gained immortality from Aroha. Both Byron and Mat get hauled up into the sky on vines to meet Aroha, and it’s a dash to the end as to which of them will ultimately survive.

Māori legend is woven into the narrative as tohunga Kiki tells his protégé Byron the story of the two taniwha of Wellington Harbour. Kiki’s ambitious plan is to awaken the Hataitai taniwha from its slumbers and wreck the city. The marvellous Evie – she of the eye-patch and tarot cards – is instrumental in stopping Kiki.

Modern-day settings are used to good advantage, and it is thrilling to read the cat-and-mouse story set in after-hours Te Papa: a vivid version of a night in the museum, complete with an ancient evil creature called Tupu.

All of this might sound a tad silly except that it’s compulsive reading and really works: Hair achieves a natural synergy between Māori myth and the contemporary world in which Mat actually lives. This may be verging on superhero material, but it’s also the stuff of real life, with concerns about love and how to live well.

My only criticism, and this is an understandable aspect of the sixth book in a series, is that the story itself is slow to get going while previous characters are introduced and various strands of back story are slotted in. For instance, there is the matter of the original Treaty of Waitangi: apparently Te Tiriti has been stolen and destroyed in a previous novel (The Ghosts of Parihaka), although initially this isn’t very clear. In this novel, Mat comes up with a solution to remedy the problem. I think Magic and Makutu works as a stand-alone read; however, it would probably help to have read one or two of Hair’s earlier novels first.

Once the story gets going, it’s an awesome adventure, like surfing a big wave, and a fitting finale to the Aotearoa series. In the end, it is trust that overcomes doubt. As Evie reflects: “There is no such thing as certainty. Each moment has to be taken on trust.”

Tina Shaw’s YA novel About Griffen’s Heart was a Storylines Notable Book in 2010. Her latest work, for general readership, The Children’s Pond, is reviewed on p23. 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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