Book Review: The Legend of Tawhiri by J.E. Purrazzi
The barriers were dynamic and always changing, timeless. Like himself.
Finding a good book can be hard. So many times I pick up a book with an intriguing premise, only to slog my way through it, or worse, not even finish it. Now, I don’t share every book I read on my blog because my purpose is to get lesser known books into the hands of friends, family, and readers. I recognize that book reviews are highly subjective and not everyone will love what I do, but I want to give a shout out to books I thought were excellent, in the hopes that others will give them a try. So far every book I’ve featured has been by an indie author (either self-published or small press), who rely heavily on reviews and word-of-mouth to get their books to their audience.
If you love fantasy set in the real world and based on history and myths, this book may be for you. The Legend of Tawhiri is a South Pacific inspired fantasy by an author that grew up in Papua New Guinea. While I love a medieval fantasy as much as anyone else, it’s refreshing to read a fantasy set somewhere other than Europe. Fantasy is after all, about exploring a world different than that which is familiar to us. Yet it still has beloved myth-based elements such as mermaid-like creatures and demigods that make up much of what we love about fairytales and fantasy.
The beginning of the story opens with a peaceful island people celebrating the coming-of-age of their youth. Coming into adulthood requires a difficult trial—swimming into the depths below an island volcano and retrieving a talisman. One man, Tawhiri, will forever be a boy in the eyes of his people because he is forbidden to complete this trial, forbidden even to set a toe in the ocean that he loves and that gives life to his people. The people of Taloa fear that Tawhiri, a foundling on a reef, is a demi-god left by the Ri—mischievous mermaid-like creatures of the sea. The leaders of the village fear that if Tawhiri were to be called back to the ocean, it would bring destruction on their village.
Tawhiri longs for the sea, but follows the rules set by his people. He desires to be seen as a man and to prove that he is not the demigod they fear. Completing the trial could prove him to be an ordinary man or it could risk him being cast out by his people. One thing Tawhiri feels certain of is that he is not Ri.
I first discovered Tawhiri on Wattpad and was immediately drawn into the picturesque ocean setting and the charming pacific village. I loved the playful banter between Tawhiri and his adoptive mom, Ooma. I too was lured by the otherworldly call of the Ri. Even more, it’s a story we can all relate to: one of finding your place in this world.
But the story remained unfinished. It was, I think, a couple years that past, but I could not forget Tawhiri. Could not help but wonder what choice he made. Did he find his place among the Taloan people or was he called away to the sea? Imagine my excitement, when I saw the author tweet that she finally publish Tawhiri’s story.
There’s so much more I could say about this story, but I don’t want to give it all away. Tawhiri is easy to read and cozy, yet its beauty and themes gripping. I read almost the entire book in one evening until I accidentally fell asleep, so finished the last 30 minutes the next morning. The author introduced a few local words and animals (for which she provided a glossary of terms in the back) that help establish the foreign setting without going so overboard that it became difficult to comprehend.
I also reached out to the author and she graciously agreed to a few questions about The Legend of Tawhiri, and I’m glad I did as her answers were fascinating.
Author Interview with J.E. Purrazzi:
What inspired you to write The Legend of Tawhiri?
I was laughing with my critique partner about this the other day. Tawhiri was originally a much darker story and much more closely attached to my expansive and unpublished fantasy world. The story itself was a blend of inspiration from the old Disney movie The Thirteenth Year, and a metaphor for my first heartbreak. Yes, I first came up with the idea as a teenager. It was set in a sort of Irish fishing town rather than on an island and was different in almost every way except for the turning into a merman thing. The character that became Tawhiri was originally a more mischievous and dangerous creature more like Peter Pan or a puck than what Tawhiri became.
There were a number of inspirations, such as books I loved as a child (Shark on the Reef, Island of the Blue Dolphins), a lovely experience with Munity on the Bounty, and more. It was the vivid sensory and emotional memories brought up by watching Moana that really pushed me to want to explore a Polynesian-inspired fantasy setting, though. I adapted the childish story to a more adult version and started on the first few chapters, just to get it out of my head.
I had no intention of publishing it (other than on my blog), and I never even plotted it, which to me means I wasn’t taking it seriously. But when life got really hard, I needed an escape. That’s when I dove back into the book. I needed something simple, hopeful, and beautiful to refresh my soul and bring back my creativity. My writing is typically very dark and deals with a lot of heavy themes. While those are close to my heart too, and I believe they are very important, it’s hard to write that regularly. And while Tawhiri is just as theme-heavy as most of my writing, the themes and lessons are much more hopeful, and closer to who I am as a person. Basically, I was just ministering to myself without too much thought about drawing my readers into thinking deeply, which is typically how I deal with thematic elements in my books.
Your bio says you grew up in Papua New Guinea. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Happily. My parents were missionaries in PNG since before I was born. During my infant and toddler years, we served in the Sepik area, and closer to villages that would have been more recognizable to Tawhiri. Most of my older years were in the highlands province. While it’s still an Island, Papua New Guinea is half of the largest island in the world. The terrain where we lived was mountainous, often cold, and covered in rainforest and more temperate pine forests.
While that part of Papua New Guinea is much more “home” to me, there is also a great love for the ocean and so many deeply ingrained sensory memories of living by the ocean. Family vacations by the ocean were also a huge part of my experience of Papua New Guinea. It has some of the most pristine and beautiful reefs in the world, and a thriving Island culture.
I have these “part-of-me” memories of things like the scent of the ocean and the way your skin feels after you’ve been in the surf all day. The songs and dances of the people. The taste and smell of coconut, fish, and the grit of sand in my teeth. The feeling of worn, carved wood. All these things which were drawn out while I was watching Moana, and reading Mutiny on the Bounty, and surprised me by how much of my identity they formed. So much so that I felt like Moana was exploring “my culture” and “my people,” despite the fact that I’m American by birth. As a cross-cultural kid, I am neither American nor South Pacific, and yet I am both. I belong to both, and yet neither. These are the things I wanted to draw out and explore.
Is the island of Taloa, the setting of Tawhiri, a real Island?
Taloa is not an existing Island. It’s softly based on several, smaller Pacific islands and cultures (such as the Solomon Islands and Hawaii), however, both the island and the culture are made up. I took my knowledge of the world views and lifestyles of Pacific Island and South Pacific Island people, and the structure of Islands in the Pacific, and drew from there. Some things are a blend, and others are definitely not reflective of the real world
Inspiration came from things such as how archipelagos can spring up around volcanoes. How the earth’s crust might shift and move land masses away from the underwater volcano that build them, and they slowly began to break down and gradually become flatter. But the islands closer to the volcano are younger and would have mountains with less rock and more dirt (Papua New Guinean mountains are more like this, with a lot of grasslands and thick forestation than say, New Zealand mountains). Or how the lava can flow out and expands an island and can swallow whole villages. We had some missionary friends who had to leave their home and help evacuate their village because of an active volcano nearby.
I also took the wildlife and plant life from existing islands. That was a challenge because, in such small ecosystems, most of the current plant and animal life was introduced artificially, so logically a pre-colonial island culture might not have them. Trying to find a balance with those things was interesting, as well as trying to find a language balance so readers could recognize things such as frigate birds, despite the fact that the Taloans would have no concept of what a frigate was while still bringing in animals that aren’t common to Western people such as Cuscus (Australian and Pacific Island opossums, which are so much cuter than American Possums) or Taringoa, a red hawk that I don’t even know the English name for. I also wanted to throw in some tok pisin names (the trade language of Papua New Guinea) such as “pukpuk” for saltwater crocodiles. Some things are just pure fun, like the Maleo bird which nests in volcanoes and are more Indonesian, or Tawhiri stopping to explain how clown fish breed, though a lot of that has only been discovered with modern science. A lot of the fruits and plants are not believed to have come to Pacific Islands until much later.
A lot of my passion for this kind of detail came from my love of books like Shark Beneath the Reef by Jean Craighead George or Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. A lot is there just because I’m a nerd, and it’s hard to really explore the beauty of the ocean and the islands without stopping to nerd out at least once or twice.
How faithful to the local culture was your book?
It’s hard to judge that. I think the worldview is very Papua New Guinean in many ways, but some is just tribal mentality that you could find in any hunter-gatherer first culture. But because it’s a book that requires you to be able to really immerse yourself into visuals, I knew I couldn’t base all of it off PNG villages. I also did want an actual fantasy, so I didn’t want to perfectly recreate a PNG tribe. They are too foreign to most Western experiences and readers wouldn’t be able to visualize it. Polynesian village life, thanks to things like Moana and Hawaii’s cultural impact etc., is a visual image we are much more familiar with.
Some things are directly Papua New Guinean. Things like Solbat’s scarification (from the crocodile men of Papua New Guinea), or tying lizards to your wrist (we used to do this as kids). The Ri and Ilkai (mentioned by Solbat) is a specifically New Guinean merperson myth, and you won’t find another culture that refers to them as such. The mentality around child rearing, basically letting them run around naked in gangs causing trouble and learning skill sets from each other by doing it themselves, is very Papua New Guinean, and (at least in modern culture) is probably not as common across other Pacific Cultures.
Some traditions are more widespread. Tattoo culture is present in some Papua New Guinean cultures, but is much more important for Maori people, or Hawaiian people. I think in most Polynesian and many Indonesian cultures it has a similar purpose of marking a person’s name, family, and place in a tribe. I took a version of this for Taloan culture, but it’s not reflective of any one culture.
Some of those things, such as tattoos and Tapa cloth, laplaps, etc., are widely Polynesian and South Pacific island cultural things that I used but changed a bit for my purposes. Such as bark cloth being supple enough to tie up the way Tawhiri often did, as most tapa is actually pretty stiff. Those are cultural shifts brought on by modern clothes being brought in. The idea of a test to earn adulthood, for instance, is a very tribal concept across the world but is typically just for men. Women’s entry into adulthood is purely biological. Most passages into manhood (at least in PNG) are more like extended torture sessions than tests and are mostly outlawed. I also made the culture a bit more equal in their treatment of men and women. At least in Papua New Guinea genders are much more separate, and the modern treatment of women in Papua New Guinea is sadly more like the people Ooma described than Taloa.
Tell me about the Myth of the Ri and the Demigods.
Ah, so, I like to write in deep POV, which means the information you get from the MC might not always be accurate. So I have the sort of “real” history of the fantasy world and the Taloan version of it.
The REAL version is that this world was created by a single Creator. He first created multiple races of godlike beings who’s role it was to preside over various aspects of creation The sprites preside over the water, with a different race for freshwater than for saltwater.
These races of gods were to teach humanity about the world, and help protect them. But when war broke out between them after “the fall”, the god races were taken out of the world. Some chose to stay, either because they loved humanity or because they love the world. They were, however, incredibly weakened, and, much less powerful. And some actively hate humans.
The Ri, the ocean spirits, sometimes have relationships with humans. Sometimes the babies can live underwater, but most often they can’t. In those cases, the Ri leave them on beaches near human settlements or try to find other ways to get humans to take care of them. Most of this is really old world-building for a fantasy world that I haven’t touched since I first read The Silmarillion as a kid, but the concepts are still workable.
In the Taloan’s culture, they know that abandoned babies are often Ri or demigods. They believe that eventually (as is typically the case) the Ri will call their offspring back to them once they come of age. They think, though, that as long as that someone doesn’t ever touch the ocean, they will not turn back into Ri. They also believe you can scare away Ri with certain rituals (such as we see Ooma doing with the coconuts and walking around the Island).
Like many animistic cultures, they would connect cause and effect that we might not necessarily do in the Western world. A tribal culture might say that a death or natural disaster is related to an event that angered the spirits in some way.
Because of this, Taloans have built up a belief surrounding demigods that isn’t strictly true. The idea that Demigods would destroy their village in order to fully come into their own as Ri, or that the Ri might attack a village after retrieving a demigod from them as an act of revenge for “keeping the child from them,” is not accurate, but is a mythology built on a natural fear of the sea and of the spirits. Often sea-faring cultures have a similar way of personification of the ocean as an angry, fickle monster as a way to explain how it both gives life and kills.
That is what causes fear around adopted infants in the Taloan culture. Many women would prefer to just give the baby back to the sea than adopt them and take the risk. The elders are okay with Ooma keeping the baby, but the idea that a demigod might come of age and return to the sea causes a lot of fear. They believe the village itself would be in danger of some form of natural disaster either caused by the demigod, or on behalf of the demigod. In most cases this wouldn’t be true, but they would take any ocean-related disaster or death as proof. For instance, Solbat’s village might have blamed the invasion on the pirates on him being a demigod. The village by the volcano would blame the lava flow on them. A big storm, tidal wave, or even just a death during fishing might be blamed on Ri or an angry demigod. The Taloan believe that the demigod has to go back to the sea before such retributions, but other tribes, such as Solbat’s, might believe that their mere presence in the village would be dangerous and might blame any sea-related disasters or bad luck on them.
Is there anything else you would like to say about Tawhiri?
Tawhiri is not at all what I would typically write. It’s a deviation from my style in so many ways. But I am so proud of it. Typically I would depend on a more traditional story structure, a really strict plot, and character-driven narratives. Tawhiri was entirely discovery written. There is no antagonist, the pacing is closer to the Ghibli movie than any of my other tightly structured books, and it is driven by wonder and beauty rather than by plot or character choices.
I wrote Tawhiri as an escape from an incredibly painful time in my life and as a safe retreat to “home” at a time when I felt cut loose and completely out of control. Because of that, I focus much more on my experience than the reader’s experience. All I wanted was an escape into beauty. I called it “my vacation in book form.”
Themes such as finding where you belong, and having value even if you don’t fit your culture’s concept of “success” are hidden in there. The idea that there is incredible strength, courage, and honor in a simple life and responsibilities.
My greatest desire for readers is that Tawhiri will be a source of peace, enjoyment, and happiness. If they get nothing out of it other than a relaxing cozy story that leaves them feeling happy (and wanting to go to the local beach or aquarium) I have done my job. A broader appreciation for Pacific Island Cultures and for their intricate relationship with the ocean would be a huge accomplishment. But for those who don’t know where they belong, or who are struggling to feel wanted in the world they are in, I really hope they come away feeling a little more seen.