The Lost Tohunga by David Hair, HarperCollins, RRP $24.99, ISBN 9781-86950-827-2, Available now.
The Lost Tohunga is a teen magical mystery romp with a distinctly New Zealand flavour. The story takes place in two worlds – the New Zealand which we’re all familiar with and Aotearoa, which is a parallel country, only those in the know can access. Aotearoa is filled with magic, strange characters, and Maori vampires.
Our hero, Mat, is entangled in a deadly power-struggle which will decide the fate of both worlds. He’s joined by a wide cast of friends and enemies, both mystical and realistic, from New Zealand and Aotearoa. The scope of the worlds is dizzying. Back in my day, we read coming-of-age stories set in English boarding schools, and we were happy with them, damn it.
Parts of The Lost Tohunga sang “cultural appropriation” to my over-educated pakeha ears. The issue of cultural appropriation is a touchy one with no easy answer, or perhaps no answer at all – certainly it is beyond the scope of your humble internet book reviewer. I could not think how to approach this issue until, I remembered Peter Gossage. The Gossage books, with their bright, graphical designs and simple retellings of Maori Myths and Legends were my first real exposure to any Maori culture. Sure, that’s not ideal, but an interesting and positive experience is a lot better than none. (The Gossage books are still around and I found some on YouTube. Like this one where Maui beats up the sun. How cool is that?)
The Hinemoa story is mentioned, and some Maori vampires make an appearance (I was sceptical, but it turns out patupaiarehe are as real as any other vampire.) Just like with the Gossage books, I was learning things. There’s also a glossary in the back, for all those tricky Maori words. Including the definition of Maori, which I found delightfully recursive.
So, there’s some legends, a world parallel to our own and I’m not spoiling anything by revealing there’s some epic battles and friendship helps good win out in the end. I found the plot a little too knotty to follow in entirely (so there’s this witch from the past? And she fights this talking dog but it’s not really a dog? And Mat is going to be a wizard when he grows up?) but I got the gist of it as good vs evil.
The Lost Tohunga is the second book of a trilogy, which lead to inevitable catch-up passages. These weren’t too intrusive, and gave enough back story to place the characters in context, although you’d have to read the other books to really ‘get ‘ it.
It sometimes seems that authors sacrifice character to squeeze in complex plotlines. Hair has largely avoided this, and we have a whole cast of characters which are believable (and a few cardboard cut-outs who put in a surprise appearance at the end). Hair manages to make even the wise old mentor archetypical rather than cliché, and even the mum character does something other than fret and cook. I was willing to award points for the inclusion of any female characters at all, but Hair weaves in lots and they’re really rather good. While Hair doesn’t get everything exactly right, it’s obvious he’s made the effort to present his female characters as something other than helpless and hopelessly boy-crazy. The clichéd Cassandra grated on my nerves a little, but I found the not-quite-love-interest Hine delightful.
Would I recommend The Lost Tohunga? Not unless you’re a t(w)een or have a penchant for the fluffier end of fantasy books. Despite our beloved BookieMonster controlling everything I read, don’t fall in to either of those categories (yet). While The Lost Tohunga generally held my attention, I didn’t fall in love with it, like I might have if I was younger or wore more black. As it is, I enjoyed it as a weird cultural artefact, a novel born on at a time when we’re holding up kiwi-made books as a point of pride, but really like vampires too.