Refreshingly Different Samoan Paranormal Romance - When Water Burns Telesa: Book Two By Lani Wendt-Young
This is the second volume in the Telesa sage, and I hadn’t read the first, which I thought might be a problem. As it turned out I didn’t need to worry: the author skillfully laid enough groundwork so that a new reader was oriented as to what has already happened, and I never once felt lost.
I’m not a big fan of paranormal romance usually (probably my least favourite YA genre)– but once I got into this one, it blew me away! Which is a huge tribute to the quality of the writing, and in particular the highly engaging characters.
The story is set in Samoa, which works brilliantly: the language, the culture, the customs, the legends – whether real or cleverly invented - all lend freshness and authenticity. The lush vegetation, steaming heat, brilliant flowers, teeming clear seas and conservative customs, are all brought vividly to life.
Leila is a Telesa, a fire goddess of ancient legend, but grew up in her father’s affluent American family so until recently had no idea of her heritage or gifts. She has already clashed with her mother – now dead – and her mother’s sister, who is now a powerful and embittered enemy. The Telesa form Covenants, like witches’ covens: groups of gifted individuals who demand powerful oaths of loyalty. Leila is on the outside; plus, horrifically, the Covenants always sacrifice male offspring. Twins are commonplace – but male Telesa are forbidden.
Enter normal school days – Fa'afafine (male raised as female) cross-dressing Simone with a talent for fashion shows – the rugby-playing va’a paddling super-hunk Daniel, who has some unsuspected secrets of his own – and an unexpected newcomer from Hawaii, whose horrific scarring and dark background gradually reveal yet another complex and powerful protagonist.
It did take me a little while to get into this one – I would have liked Leila to listen to her lawyer, and be a bit less shallow-seeming at the start – but things soon started to move along, and she became real and more empathetic the moment she got involved in the women’s refuge. That was a very strong point of the story: for all the beauty of the place, the author didn’t shirk taking on some major issues in Samoa, like family violence, and masculine expectations. Leila is refreshingly strong when faced with Daniel’s need to “protect” her, and, although hurt, can see that his fragile male ego just needs to get over it if they are to have a future together. Quite unusual in romantic YA, and powerful stuff.
This is a gripping read, which well repays sticking with the story after a slightly slow start. Highly recommended.
Lani Wendt Young is a Samoan-Maori writer and blogger, and the 2018 ACP Pacific Laureate. Her blog Sleepless in Samoa has an international following, and she is know for writing about feminism, religion, climate justice and LGBTI/ Fa'afafine in Oceania. She is an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse and has written at length about family violence in Samoa: a strong and committed background, which shines through in her writing without being overwhelming.
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