Writer Steph Matuku reviews two new books for teenagers. Tina Shaw's manuscript for Ursa won the Storylines Tessa Duder Award for YA Manuscript, and A Place of Stone and Darkness is Chris Mousdale's first full-length novel.
Ursa, by Tina Shaw (Walker Books)
I had been dying to read Ursa ever since I saw the striking bright red cover with an army boot about to crush a white flower into dust. Luckily for me, it turned up in my mailbox from the Sapling mind-readers and I immediately cancelled the rest of my day and read the lot in one sitting.
And then I put it down and thought and thought. It’s not often a book makes you do that. I was still thinking about it a week later. Ursa is that intense, that scarring. I guess it’s because the whole premise has happened before in real life and could so easily happen again.
There are two types of people who live in Ursa – the Cerels and the Travesters. The Cerels arrived first, and then the Travesters came. Lots of them. Now, under the autocratic rule of the Director, the Travesters live full, happy, easy lives, while the Cerels don’t. The Cerels do all the manual labour, the men are forced to work in factories before they’re hauled off to live in wild camps and the women aren’t allowed to have children any more. “Work, Life, Liberty” and “Work makes you Free” are some of the propaganda rhetoric spewed at the Cerels over loudspeakers that remind them of their inferior place in the world, as if they could ever forget.
The Cerels arrived first, and then the Travesters came. Lots of them. Now, under the autocratic rule of the Director, the Travesters live full, happy, easy lives, while the Cerels don’t.
Leho is a young boy who lives with his family (and several more), in a building in the Cerel ghetto. Food is scarce and there’s always the nagging fear that the Black Marks will burst in and arrest the lot of them. Leho’s mother was blinded by the Black Marks in retaliation for her part in an uprising in the early days of the Director’s rule, and now she spends her time inside, hiding away from the world. Leho’s father is in a wild camp, his older brother Jorzy is part of an underground rebellion, and Leho’s older sister has just broken one of the Director’s most rigid rules.
Leho spends his time wandering Ursa looking for money and food, and picking up snippets of information to give to his brother. One night he makes a tentative friendship with a Travester girl, and realises that the Travesters really have no idea how the Cerels live, that it’s easier for them to turn their heads and walk away than it is to give up their easy comfortable life and stand up for what’s right. It all comes to a head when Leho realises he doesn’t want to be like that, that he can make a difference too...
Ursa is a slow burn. I don’t mean that it’s a slow read, at all. It started off intense and kept getting more and more intense until at the end I found myself in a cold sweat, wondering which of my Facebook friends would turn me in for a doughnut. This book is a warning that it is too easy to be complicit with our silence and that we need to shout a little bit louder about the issues that affect us all.
Ursa is a slow burn. I don’t mean that it’s a slow read, at all. It started off intense and kept getting more and more intense until at the end I found myself in a cold sweat...
Tina Shaw, award-winning author of several books for young people, won the Storylines Tessa Duder award with the Ursa manuscript. Ursa is a thrilling Young Adult read, highly recommend.
by Tina Shaw
Published by Walker Books
A Place of Stone and Darkness, by Chris Mousdale
The Striggs used to live in harmony with the other bird-like creatures upon the earth, until the humans came – the Toppas – and tried to exterminate the lot of them. Now the Striggs live underground and their bodies have evolved for a flightless existence in the dark caverns of Striggworld.
Ellee is a young girl on the brink of adulthood, with a fascination for the unexplored regions of their world. It’s while she’s out exploring, she finds a Toppa boy, Blue, who has fallen through an abandoned well, the first human in centuries to have ever laid eyes on a Strigg.
With the discovery of the child, Ellee realises that more humans will follow. Ellee and her brother, a brilliant and eccentric inventor called Sidfred, must return the boy back to his people before they find out he’s missing, but then there’s the politics of her own people to contend with as well, some of whom feel that the boy must be killed to ensure his silence.
Ellee and her brother, a brilliant and eccentric inventor called Sidfred, must return the boy back to his people before they find out he’s missing...
When the attempt to return Blue goes horribly wrong, Ellee and her friends find themselves in terrible danger. Not only that, it looks as though everyone underground will have to be evacuated unless they can pull off a risky move that could have disastrous ramifications for their entire world...
The world-building in this book is extraordinary. Mousdale not only wrote the story but he created all the illustrations as well, including some maps for which I was very grateful. I found it too easy to get lost in Striggworld, even with the help of a bedside lamp.
The Merzeum, illustrated by Chris Mousdale
The story is slow moving in parts of the first half, but the action really ramps up with the attempt to return Blue up top. I was wondering where exactly Blue had come from and was intrigued (and horrified) to discover that he’d dropped in from some dystopian alternate universe – for some reason I’d thought he had come from our own contemporary world. (Yes, I was hoping there were Striggs underneath my house somewhere, they’re kinda cute.)
This alternative reality just adds another layer of intrigue, and after the dark tunnels of Striggworld, it was fabulous to get up top and breathe fresh air – even if it was from a world that lies in ruins. I actually really liked that half of the book, and am wondering if Mousdale has plans for another book set in the Toppa universe? Please?
This alternative reality just adds another layer of intrigue, and after the dark tunnels of Striggworld, it was fabulous to get up top and breathe fresh air...
For some reason, this reminded me of The Hobbit – with cute and quirky made-up beings with their own history and language, and the underlying human themes of love, friendship and hope.
Chris Mousdale is an award-winning illustrator who lives in New Zealand and this is his first book. A competent and imaginative debut for Young Adult readers.
a place of stone and darkness
by Chris Mousdale
Published by Puffin
Steph Matuku is an award-winning writer from Taranaki, New Zealand. She spent fifteen years writing radio advertising, before deciding to branch out and write pieces that were longer than thirty seconds. She has a special love for writing stories for children and young adults and has written for film, magazines and theatre. In 2016, Steph won a place on the Māori Literature Trust’s writing incubator programme ‘He Papa Tupu’, and wrote her first YA fantasy novel for young people, Flight of the Fantail, published alongside Whetū Toa and the Magician for junior readers by Huia Publishers in 2018.