Once There Was Fire: A Novel of Old Hawaii

Written by Stephen Shender
Review by Viviane Crystal

While many readers or movie watchers are familiar with the story of Hawaii told by James Michener, very few know of the early origins of Hawaiian history.  Stephen Shender tells the story of the early Hawaiians, especially King Kamehameha.  The story begins with the movement of people from distant islands to the many Hawaiian Islands, because of constant rivalry and assassinations and a dire prophecy that the child will be killed since he is the likely King-to-be.  He is raised like a normal child whose needs are satisfied but who is not overly spoiled.  Years later, he is returned to his family and so begins the establishment of friendships and rivalries that lead to life or death.

What is particularly notable is the loyalty that honors decently behaved leaders and the karmic demise of those who turn traitor or directly target opposing leaders.  The descriptions of phenomenal storytellers, feast makers, drinking contests, blood bonds, sacrifices of prisoners, polygamous relationships, remarkable physical prowess in sport and war, military strategies that guarantee success or failure, and so much more fill these pages into what one can only call a mesmerizing saga.  Caution: the names of all the characters occasionally gets quite complex and confusing; but that doesn’t prevent this long epic novel from being a gripping historical read.  Another interesting portion concerns the arrival of “white” traders whose honor is questionable but which lets readers appreciate Hawaiian justice.  Remarkable historical fiction with some repetitive strains, but overall a well-researched and enjoyable read!