Rick Riordan has garnered a lot of deserved attention over the past six years for his Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. The Percy books came along at just the right time; when Harry Potter was on his way to victory and parents were thinking “What books can I get them hooked on next???” When 12-year-old Percy discovers that the Greek gods are alive and well, and one of them is his father, it doesn’t take long for him to get sucked into a world where myth meets reality. Full of awesome monsters, gods (both good-natured and not-so-good-natured) and heroes, the Percy series is chocka with fantastic adventures and a really fun cast of characters. As a bonus, the reader doesn’t even need to know anything about Greek mythology at the start; Riordan walks you through it in a completely unobtrusive manner. One of the things that makes the series so special is the mash-up of the mythical and the modern, in some ways reminiscent of urban fantasy novels geared towards an older audience (Melissa Marr, Emma Bull, and Charles De Lint all come to mind).
For fans of Percy Jackson, New Zealand author David Hair hits all the same positive targets, but in a slightly different and awesomely Kiwi way. In The Bone Tiki (as well as the subsequent novels The Taniwha’s Tear and The Lost Tohunga) the real world and the world of myths exist alongside each other, with some individuals able to make the transition between the two. As an honorary New Zealander (I’ve had my residency for a wee while now), I love that Hair’s take on the mythical world of New Zealand encompasses all of the figures of both Māori and Pākehā tradition. As the series continues some European mythology also comes into play.
The characters in Hair’s series have the same flavour as those in Percy Jackson, Harry Potter or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer; a close group of friends with different strengths centered around a young main character, in this case Matiu Douglas (Mat), whose supernatural abilities reveal a greater destiny. Sometimes Hair’s use of character archetypes hampers the story (I’d like to see more authors break away from using the traditional know-it-all unattractive girl sidekick who, later on in the series, suddenly decides to change her hair or clothing and, good golly, how did we never realize that she’s actually pretty!), but generally speaking, this framework has been used multiple times because it works. We see ourselves in at least one of the characters in the group, and we see our friends in the others. These types of books are popular precisely because, in a very Bastian from The Neverending Story kind of way, we want to see ourselves in the characters, to become them, if only for a few hundred pages.
One of David Hair’s strengths is adding complexity to the good vs evil dynamic. Although everything in Book One is fairly cut and dried (we know who the baddie is and dagnammit, we’re gonna git ‘im), by Book Three we start to see some of the ‘evil’ characters as victims of circumstance. In addition, every time that the main character, Mat, uses magic to fight, he draws on the same type of harmful power that has corrupted the evil magicians he battles. As a result, Hair’s books are really about human beings’ potential for both good and evil. Most of the characters who seem to be pure good or pure evil are those who live on as mythical versions of their original selves, brought to life only by the things that people remember about them. In Mat’s world, if a historical person is reviled by modern society, after death they reappear in the world of myths as someone who could only be reviled, losing all the good qualities that individual may have originally possessed. In this way, Hair also comments on humankind’s propensity for distorting the past through memory; his representation of our complex capacities for both good and evil sits alongside his acknowledgement that while we are all capable of both, we only want to view others as one or the other. All this is wrapped up in a very cool adventure story with lots of fighting and magic. What more could readers 11-14 ask for?