It seems like an ordinary day when Tui and Kae, sixteen-year-old twins, get home from school – until they find their mother, Maia, has disappeared and a swirling vortex has opened up in her room. They are sucked into this portal and dragged down to Rarohenga, the Māori Underworld, a shadowy place of infinite dark levels, changing landscapes and untrustworthy characters. Maia has been kidnapped by their estranged father, Tema, enchanted to forget who she really is and hidden somewhere here. Tui and Kae have to find a way through this maze, outwit the shady characters they meet, break the spell on their mother, and escape to the World of Light before the Goddess of Shadows or Tema holds them in Rarohenga forever.
Growing up and living in Aotearoa (New Zealand), it’s not often I get the pleasure of reading a book where I get to see the slang and reo that I grew up immersed and references to Kiwiana reflected on the page. I mean, how often do we get to see a sibling call their sibling ‘an egg’, something that all kids growing up Aotearoa have definitely called each other at some point? Or, how often do I get to see the flora, fauna, and all things that feel quintessential to Aotearoa – ruru, huia, glow worms, Rotorua hot pools – mentioned casually yet endearingly in a story?
So, when I read Falling into Rarohenga by Steph Matuku, I had such a wonderful time. I loved that this story felt so familiar to me and felt like a piece of my home. Just as importantly, I had so much fun reading this gem, and I cannot wait to share with you all my five reasons of why you should pick up this taonga.
1. It’s a portal fantasy to Rarohenga, the Māori underworld
I love portal fantasies – the idea of being transported to somewhere else, somewhere completely removed and outside your normal everyday life, where endless possibilities and adventures await. Falling into Rarohenga is one awesome portal fantasy adventure, where the two main characters, Māori twins Tui and Kae, come home from school and discover that their mother is missing. When they enter her room, they are pulled into a vortex and find themselves in Rarohenga, the Māori underworld where the spirits of the dead reside.
2. An immersive and stunning exploration of Māori mythology
If you love stories that have gods, goddesses, and mythical beings, then you’ll love what Falling into Rarohenga has to offer. What I loved about Falling into Rarohenga is that the story feels like a deep-dive into Māori mythology. Within Rarohenga, we meet Māori atua (gods), such as Rūaumoko, god of earthquakes and volcanoes, Tāwhirimātea, god of weather, and even the mysterious Hinekōruru – but I’ll leave her identity a secret for you to discover! I loved that the atua that I learned about in school were in this story, shown to be fearsome and mysterious beings and very much alive and brimming with power in Rarohenga. Moreover, mythological creatures like the taniwha (serpent and dragon-like creatures) and tūrehu make significant appearances and aid (or hinder?) Tui and Kae in their journey. Falling into Rarohenga s a
3. It’s also a quest story – a quest to save their mother
Early in the story, we learn that the twins are pulled into Rarohenga for a reason: they need to save their mother. Thus, Tui and Kae set off on a quest, going deeper and deeper into Rarohenga to find their mother, Tui and Kae encounter challenges unlike they have ever imagined. Like most portal fantasies, it isn’t just the creatures and beings that they encounter that pose as challenges – and in Rarohenga, the world itself will do what it can to make them forget the world above and stay forever – the twins have to also use their strengths and confront their weaknesses to overcome the obstacles that they face.
4. Explores the strength and complexities of siblinghood
One of my favourite parts of Falling into Rarohenga is how the story centers and explores the sibling relationship between Tui and Kae. Even though they are twins, the two could not be more different – Tui is bookish, knowledgeable, and has aspirations to study and become something more than what she is now but also lonely, while Kae is fiercely loyal and protective (even though he’s too proud to admit it), a little hot-headed and loves music. Another point of difference for the twins is how they feel about their father, who went to prison for fraud and was awful to their mother. While Tui, as the oldest child in the family, looked after their depressed mother and feels jaded about her father, Kae still looks up to him. How the story resolves this conflict is heartbreaking, but they also come out stronger and closer by the end.
5. Ultimately an empowering story about Māoritanga and identity
At the very heart of this story, Falling into Rarohenga is a brilliant story about identity and Tui and Kae’s connection to their Māori identity and Māoritanga. I loved that Tui and Kae’s adventure deep into Rarohenga parallels their own journey into what is Māoritanga and their own whakapapa. In Rarohenga, they meet their huia, their Auntie whom they love but passed on, they give kōhā and respect to the world and beings of Rarohenga thus allowing them to progress in their journey, and they use their knowledge passed from stories to overcome challenges. Falling into Rarohenga felt like a celebration of Māoritanga, a story in which Māori readers can see themselves, containing a world that Māori readers can feel connected to.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A boy and a girl are pulled into a vortex and find themselves in Rarohenga – and search for their missing mother.
Perfect for: Readers who love stories with mythology, gods, and mythical beings; readers who love portal fantasies; readers who love stories centered on siblings; readers looking for a story with no romance
Think twice if: You’re not looking for something with a ‘younger’ voice.
Genre: young adult, portal fantasy
Trigger/content warning: mention of death and deceased relatives, recount of parental depression, parental abandonment