I asked to review this book because the storyline caught my attention at once. The events of December 1642 when the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman came to New Zealand and encountered Maori for the first time. The images of this sketchy moment in our history, preserved only in a few small drawings and the logs from Able Tasman himself, the account of the surgeon and from an unnamed sailor, are a rich opportunity for a story. Beneath that storyline, Richard Woolley tells of a young Dutch boy, Jakob, and a Maori princess, Te Ao-mihia. How they meet and fall in love.
Going back in time a little way, we establish just how young Jakob came to be on one of Able Tasman’s ships and we learn a little of the life of a Maori princess. We see a little of their everyday lives. The more I read the less certain I was about the audience for this novel. I began to think it was a Young Adult tale until I started to find too many references to sex, be it in Amsterdam brothels or on a South Island beach. There were frequent allusions to Jakob’s taniwha as it explored the damp cave of the princess, where she attempts to keep the monster in check. All of this is too explicit for Young Adult books. The attempts to be either coy, or to avoid being too explicit, do little to rescue the content.
So I am left with a mixture that doesn’t quite pull off what it is attempting. Not quite the right voice for adult fiction, even an adult story being narrated by a boy, and a bit too mature in its themes to be classed as Young Adult. The historical accuracy of some details, be they when working for the East India Company in Amsterdam or the treatment of strangers by South Island Maori, are all handled competently but somewhere have lost some of the depth required to carry the novel. We quickly arrive at an almost fairy tale story of the young boy saved by the kindly princess. The spell and the credibility of the fairy tale are lost once the young lovers consummate their passions in a rush of taniwha and wet caves.
Richard Woolley has obviously researched his book thoroughly and tried to create an authentic rendition of Maori rituals and practices, especially how they might treat a stranger, both a Maori one and a never before seen white man. I think he has done justice to this aspect of the story, but has not managed to make the overall tone of Stranger Love work.