Book Review: Flight of the Fantail, by Steph Matuku

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

Flight-of-the-Fantail.pngOn the way to a school camp, a bus full of Kōtuku High students crashes in remote New Zealand bush. Devin, Eva and Rocky are three of a handful of students to survive. As they try to find food, shelter and safety, it quickly becomes clear that their broken phones are the least of their problems – something terrifying is haunting this temperamental valley. With a supernatural force taking over their minds and refusing to let go, the problem for Devin, Eva and Rocky is not whether they can survive the bush: it is whether they can survive their own worst nightmares.

A novel which begins with a fast-pace crash scene and ends with a blood-curdling finale, the plot of Flight of the Fantail hurtles along at a break-neck speed. The first YA novel from award-winning Taranaki writer Steph Matuku, Flight of the Fantail will appeal to those who enjoy horror, thriller and a science fiction adventure with an Aotearoa twist.

Flight of the Fantail
may have a pretty name, but it is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Teenagers physically and mentally fight against supernatural forces, while also fighting against themselves (with plenty of gore and grisly death involved). There are moments of levity amid the darkness – such as the accidental playing of the Simpsons theme tune on a glitchy cellphone during a burial – but the overall tone is grim.

Matuku’s strength is in her characterisation. As well as introducing a diverse range of well-developed characters, she does a fantastic job of slowly revealing each character’s inner motives, the nightmares that haunt their waking dreams, and the deep secrets they would much rather keep hidden if they were given the choice. In a complex plot with multiple main characters, this is an impressive achievement.

With symbolic pīwakawaka, kōtare, eels and patupaiarehe, Flight of the Fantail is a distinctly New Zealand novel infused with te reo and Māori mythology. It is also unabashedly contemporary, with teenage jargon juxtaposed against conversations about ancient myths. Eva finds moa bones in a cave and her description highlights this juxtaposition: ‘Rocky referred to it irreverently as Big Bird, but Eva was in awe of it. Those massive birds had always seemed more like myth than fact to her, and here one was, just lying there. It was like finding the remains of a dragon.’

The chapters switch between the main teenagers and the adults who are searching for them, and the motif of the foreboding fantail flits and darts to connect the scenes. As Rocky later explains, pīwakawaka are known to be messengers of death: ‘If a fantail flies into your house … it means that you or someone you know is going to die.’ Like the pīwakawaka’s presence and the kōtare preying on the fish in the river, Flight of the Fantail is full of unresolved tension which keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense.

However, while the teenage characters are convincing, the adult characters fall slightly flat. The company who own the land where the students went missing – Seddon Corporation – keep not only the families but also Search and Rescue ‘out of the Zone’ during the ‘rescue mission’. Although it later becomes clear why this is the case, it is difficult to believe the families and rescuers would be so easily duped. The reasoning for the electrical disturbances – the minerals tokatanium and terrascious – are also too obviously made-up for the reader to suspend disbelief.

Despite these minor issues, Flight of the Fantail is effortlessly readable. There are beautiful descriptions, such as: ‘He scrambled forward into the cluster of nīkau. Nothing but muted browns and emerald green and flashes of sunlight through the filigree of tree ferns, no sound but his own harsh panting and the drumbeat inside him. The smell of wet earth was cloying, ancient, suffocating.’ With short chapters and a fast pace, this is an addictive novel and a great read for those who enjoy a gritty, gory adventure story. Even better, it is set in the wild unpredictable nature of our own country.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

Flight of the Fantail
by Steph Matuku
Published by Huia Publishers
ISBN 9781775503521

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