Series: In the Land of the Long White Cloud saga
Author: Sarah Lark
Reviewed by Holly
I generally don’t pay too much attention to the ads on my Kindle, but this was a triple whammy: historical fiction set in New Zealand for $1.99? Oh Amazon, you sure do know the way to my heart, and to my Mastercard. Seriously, the ad for “Song of the Spirits” appeared just as I had been agonizing over what would be an appropriate first book review post. Since there are few things I love more than New Zealand and bargains, I (uncharacteristically, I swear) clicked “buy” before knowing anything else about this book. I might have noticed that it is the second book in a “saga” (is that like a “series?” a “triology”? I am not sure), but that didn’t deter me from diving into this one, so don’t let it deter you either.
Elaine O’Keefe is the radiant grand-daughter of Gwyneira McKenzie, who made her way to New Zealand to take a wealthy sheep baron’s hand in marriage in In the Land of the Long White Cloud. Elaine inherited not only her grandmother’s red hair but also her feisty spirit, big heart, and love of the land. When William Martyn, a handsome young Irishman of questionable integrity, walks into her life, she succumbs rapidly to his charms. Only to have her heart broken when her sensual half-Maori cousin Kura Warden arrives for a visit and draws William away.
Though both young women must endure hardships and disappointments as they learn to live with the choices they make, each of them also discovers an inner resilience—and eventually finds love and happiness in new, unexpected places. Tested by the harsh realities of colonial life, both girls mature into spirited young women with a greater understanding of the challenges—and joys—of love, friendship, and family.”
I loved it. The book centers on two cousins, Elaine and Kura, in colonial New Zealand as they transition from adolescents to adults, but there is so much more going on here. The family has a complicated history, and, admittedly, some of the details were confusing, though I’m pretty sure reading book one of the “saga” will straighten that out (oops). The girls’ family members, as well as their love interests, made for compelling characters, and I found myself just as interested in some of the side stories as in the central action. The book opens with Elaine’s story, and cousin Kura doesn’t seem to have much going for her besides a big head until later in the book, but her grandmother, who is also her primary caretaker, moves her story along. I will add that Grandma Gwyneira acts a bit shady, but I’m just gonna let that slide.
The descriptions of the landscape – geographically and socially – of late nineteenth century New Zealand serve as far more than the backdrop for the story. Reading good historical fiction gives you a sense of a particular time and place, so that you sneakily end up learning something while you’re caught up in all the “he said what to her? Uh uh!” In the afterword, Lark writes that “although New Zealand’s history is relatively short, it was been all the more precisely recorded as a result. Practically every town has an archive that contains the names of the settlers, their farms, and often, details of their lives.” This absolutely makes me want to read more about the history of New Zealand – after I read book one, of course.
I’m also open to going to do some field work research…whadaya say, sister?
Last note: there are a couple complaints on Amazon about this book, saying it was predictable and that the characters did exactly what you’d expect. I have to say, if you could predict where Elaine and Kura would end up by the end after initially meeting them in the early chapters, then you should probably get thee to 7-11 for a lotto ticket. In this book, people turn out to be entirely different than their first impressions belie, and the two primary characters come to change their outlooks on love, family, success, and of course, each other.
My favorite novels are ones in which the basic facts of a character’s life get rearranged in a way that seems completely improbable until it starts to make perfect sense. If you have no idea what that means, read The Brooklyn Follies, stat.
Rating: THREE STARS