First Book Review: “A Flame Flickers in the Darkness” by Winston Cowie

Peter Maxwell, New Zealand Wars Authority and Author of key New Zealand History Book, “Frontier: The Battle for the North Island of New Zealand,” (2000): Review of “A Flame Flickers in the Darkness” by Winston Cowie

Winston Cowie is a young New Zealander with impressive academic credentials; an MSc from Oxford, and a law degree from Otago, who is making a career in environmental law and policy. “A Flame Flickers in the Darkness” is his first book – a 500 page plus historical novel set in 1860’s New Zealand against the backdrop of latter phases of the New Zealand Wars – the intense and bitter fighting between Maori and European over land, that in many ways divides the country still.

“A Flame Flickers in the Darkness” explores the relationship between two young men caught up in the dangers and adventures of this dramatic era – Jack O’Malley, an Irish whaler, and Whero, a Maori warrior of similar age but quite different cultural and racial backgrounds. Whero’s spirituality, and that of his people, contrasts with the sometimes cocky, matter-of-factness of the Europeans. The two strike up a friendship, but the fighting ultimately divides them and leads to a tragic climax.

Cowie captures the manners, customs and language of the era skillfully, and importantly, establishes the essential nature of the conflict – that particularly in Taranaki, this was a civil war between people who had become, and would be again, neighbours in this remote land.

A number of real historical figures appear in the narrative, both Maori leaders and European military men, and it is fascinating to have them fleshed out into actual people interacting with the fictional characters alongside them, rather than appearing as in mere silhouettes in the formal documents.

Cowie’s book is a large and impressive work that makes a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of colonial New Zealand’s troubled history.

Peter Maxwell
Respected Historian & Authority on the New Zealand Wars
Author of “Frontier: The Battle for the North Island of New Zealand,” 2000.