I’m going to begin this review by admitting that I was initially interested in The Continent. The premise sounded entertaining, and Keira Drake had always seemed nice on Twitter. I like to support debuts, etc., etc.
I ended up securing an e-galley weeks back, and attempted to read it. However, I was really turned off by the writing style, and decided to stop reading. The writing felt simplistic and unpolished, and well, life is too short to read books that don’t interest me.
But given the recent controversy associated with the book, I made the decision to read it, so I could provide some additional information on why what’s being depicted is problematic.
Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by Harlequin TEEN
Format read: E-Galley via publisher
But Vaela's dream all too quickly turns to a nightmare as the journey brings her face-to-face with the brutal reality of a war she's only read about. Observing from the safety of a heli-plane, Vaela is forever changed by the bloody battle waging far beneath her. And when a tragic accident leaves her stranded on the Continent, Vaela finds herself much closer to danger than she'd ever imagined. Starving, alone and lost in the middle of a war zone, Vaela must try to find a way home—but first, she must survive.
Full review: (Warning: It's long)
However, I’m hoping this is going to be of use to someone, and will persuade others not to read the book. I'm not going to write it like a traditional review. Instead, we're going to break it down section-by-section.
Let’s begin with:
Let me get this out of the way: the world building is hazy at best, and non-existent at worst.
Due to a combination of genuinely bad writing and unclear world-building, Drake has given us a pseudo-utopian society in the form of the Spire, which consists of a pseudo-British culture where people from four different regions drink tea, have jobs and benefits, even if they’re poor.
(Yes, the poor thing was an actual quote: "All classes work hard, and the lowest among them enjoy a fair wage and education, and fine things, and all the security the nation can provide." [Loc. 1667-1668]
Me: Knock it right off with this faux noblesse oblige nonsense, please.)
They laugh about the so-called “savages” on the Continent:
"...but I think I favor the Topi. Seem a red-blooded sort - aggressive and primitive, they say." (Loc. 98, 3%)
There are many things I can say about the residents of the Spire, but in a nutshell: their mentality is colonialism-era Britain, with era-appropriate dialogue, stiff-upper lips, arranged marriages (more or less), and more. This is not a good thing.
There is a lot of emphasis on cultural and moral superiority, predicated around the idea that the cultures of the Spire have transcended the need for war. And while Drake gives some half-hearted explanations for how they hit that point, there are very little to few details on how they manage that status quo.
E.g. What about weapons? What about resources? Exports/imports? Even though the Spire seems to be one gigantic block formed of four regions, surely not all resources are divided equally…?
And while Drake casually references a Chancellery, it’s unclear just how the representations to the Challencery are elected, for how long and more. (Loc. 2950, 82%) A later section indicates that there are sole representatives from each of the quadrants, but that seems a poorly represented council, for a large, advanced population?
As for the Continent itself, there is also no really clear explanation for why the residents want to tour the Continent. Vaela states that it’s the wish of “every man, woman and child” (loc. 56/2%), but not why.
While the secondary characters express different wishes for their visit – from seeing blood sport, to the views, to some convoluted idea that the fighting is supposed to teach people not to fight (Loc. 5 – Loc. 12, 3%) concrete motive is just REALLY unclear. So basically, it’s poverty tourism, at its worst.
It's also troubling that we don't really see POC in the Spire outside of Mr. Cloud, who is - yes, you guessed it - an all-knowing black man, with blue eyes. The way he is written is a character REALLY strongly made me think of not only this - which is obviously problematic and racist as hell - but it also made me think of how second class servants were treated during Britain's dominance through colonialism.
Though Drake valiantly attempts to make the point throughout the book that despite all its benefits, the residents of the Spire are more like the Continent than Vaela initially realizes - to give it gravitas, I guess? - the message doesn’t come across well. Because there’s no actual eureka moment connecting the Spire to the Continent. It's as bland and generic as everything else.
More on this in a bit.
On the connection to real-world cultures:
There are plenty of readers/writers far more qualified than I who have spoke out already, you can visit their threads: here, here.
But what's clear though, is that they are clearly set up as inferior. They're described as savages, blood thirsty, warmongers, etc. Given that they are also dark-skinned, Drake has set up a dynamic of the darker-skinned vs. the lighter-skinned Aven’ei , which is again, problematic.
On the Aven’ei:
First things first: The descriptions. Noro is described as having very specific Asian features from the get-go, including up-turned/almond-shaped eyes. And he's also an assassin.
Second: Once they get to Noro’s home, there are little things scattered throughout that indicate really obvious Asian connections. This includes:
* the characters arguing about honor (Loc. 1458, 40%),
referring to each other as “Brother” (Loc. 1703, 47%)
(non-Asian people, I promise you, we don’t go around referring to each other in these terms; I’ve seen it in YA too many times)
* and Yuki, our sole English-speaking Asian female, dressing in a variation of a qipao. (Loc. 1901-1902)
The characters also have top knots and a side-character’s large dog is even named Aki, which can only make you think of the Akita. Respectfully, Drake can’t pretend that this is not an Asian-inspired culture, because anyone with any exposure to Asian culture will see it.
On the conflict:
So this is what drives me bonkers about The Continent.
It’s clear from this essay, that Drake derived the initial foundations of the story from her (mis)understanding of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. So you can basically insert your own ideas of just which countries she was thinking about when she was crafting and writing this book.
But at no point does Drake actually explain why the Topi and the Aven’ei have been fighting for three hundred and forty years. (Loc. 2954, 84%) There are some oblique references to resource scarcity and external interference that could have been interesting had Drake actually taken it somewhere, (Loc. 1801-1803) but she doesn’t.
Instead, it is just strongly implied that all of this is because the Topi are savages and the Aven’ei just have to kill or be killed, something Vaela willingly goes along with. She even goes to the Challencery and argues for military support to take down the Aven’ei, without actually considering things like doing outreach/engagement with the Topi. (Loc. 2920, 81%). You'd think for someone who is all about peace at the start of the novel, she'd want to try and at least try...?
But that is what makes this disappointing and distressing. It reinforces the idea that violent warfare is occurring because these POC simply do not know better. Given Drake’s original essay, it also draws a very troubling line to real-world events that even the youngest of reader will likely realize.
From her aforementioned essay, Drake states:
"And so, I thought...what if someone privileged, someone like me, was unable to just turn off the news and go about my day? What if I were thrust into a consistently violent situation from which I could not escape? What if war was the norm and peace only an idea?"
Which as @elleonwords pointed out on Twitter, is self-insertion. Drake obviously envisioned herself in this world that she was crafting, and it’s maddeningly evident throughout Vaela’s character development.
She begins the book as a stereotypical non-POC whiny heroine; she’s wealthy, has been fêted by servants all her life, and thinks that she belongs to a society that has advanced beyond the point of warfare, so that she can pursue leisurely activities like cartography.
Which is ironic in it of itself, because mapmaking is a very political act. Don’t believe me? Check out this clip from The West Wing:
When she starts being swayed to the Aven’ei cause, it’s not due to any specific ideological belief or growth on her part, which again makes everything about the white girl, and basically uses the two groups as props. Instead, it’s because she’s fallen in love with Noro, and wants him to be safe. Which sounds noble, but just feels condescending. Especially when she goes out into a battle – despite being instructed not to – and thinks:
"Forgive me, Noro. My life is worth no more than any other." (Location 2459)
Which essentially undermines any development she has had. While I’m fairly certain that Drake meant for her sacrifice to come off as Vaela now feeling that she’s part of the group, it’s basically suggesting that Vaela is equating her life with her new romance, which is also questionable and takes away from some of the genuine struggles that her newfound friends have shared about this 300+ year conflict.
None of this is made any better by her eventual decision to go to the Spire and ask for help, so she can bring an end to the war. While I’m sure Drake meant it to say: hey, we’re not so different so we’ll work together – it comes off as such a condescending, white savior response.
It’s not improved by the fact that Vaela makes this demand without any consideration of resources on how it can be done. She then pitches a fit and tells the members of the Challencery that they’re horrible people for refusing, largely because several of the representatives don’t want “savages” coming over.
I’m sure Drake was trying to draw some kind of parallel to our country’s history of refugee problems – because essay, remember? – but it came off clunky and churlish.
On the macro level, Vaela – because she’s a self-insert for Drake – behaves in a way that I found exasperating.
Like any stereotypical of this nature, Vaela has an adversary in the form of Shoshi, a village elder who dislikes what she represents. He also ends up as her supervisor for her village-assigned job.
While Shoshi actually has some genuinely valid reasons for disliking her, Vaela refuses to take no for an answer. She goes out of her way to bake him sweets, buy him things, and basically refuses to accept his boundaries.
"In truth, I am not accustomed to being disliked. I can't udnerstand why he loathes me, why the very sight of me seems to irritate him... But I decide with unequivocal certainty, that I will make him like me." (Loc. 1827)
(Italics in the original, because Vaela is creepy and doesn't understand boundaries.)
Though it may be a bit of a stretch, it can be argued that Vaela’s response to Shoshi is very similar to the idea that we’ve seen play out in the YA community that people of color should just be nice and capitulate despite some genuine misgivings. Either way, it made me feel uncomfortable while reading.
On secondary characters:
I've already said that everyone in Vaela's Spire-life is basically representative of a British colonial-era character. So just imagine a number of really pompous people - including females who literally clutch at their pearls, and a ten-second love interest, who is basically a card - and that's that.
On non-Vaela friends/family: The fact that Mr. Cloud is literally the only black character that I can remember is a massive problem.
Topi: There's literally nothing I can say about them, because Drake just writes them off as "savages" who attempt to rape, plunder and pillage, for the entire book. There's no explanation for why.
Noro and Co.: I literally went back and reread parts of the book tonight, and none of these characters have stuck with me. None of them have memorable personalities; they're basically paint-by-number characters.
E.g. Shoshi is a mix between Haymitch and Snape, etc.
On Yuki: While I'm SURE Drake patted herself on the back for writing a feisty POC female character, it's all just a big stereotype. Much like Ching-Lan in The Forbidden Orchid, Yuki is supposedly feisty because she goes against the grain. She's smart AND a warrior.
She onlybarely passes the Bechdel test, because she teaches Vaela how to function as a person - e.g. cooking; bargaining for groceries, etc. However, the fact that she's relegated into a teaching position cancels out any benefits, so....
Also, she dies at the end. So thanks for that, Drake.
On the romance:
It's made apparent from the get-go that Vaela - I almost typed Drake, because that's how much she's inserted herself into this book for me - is attached to Noro, because he is a hot, hot exotic assassin who saved her from the evil Topi. There's nothing below the surface to the attraction, outside of multiple descriptions about how stoic and handsome he is.
She actually goes into multiple descriptions about his face, and I can't be bothered to go look up the quotes, because it's just going to aggravate me. But they're there.
(Sidenote: I also can't type Noro without thinking of this. Probably not the image you want for your hot romance.)
Vaela mopes around wondering why he won't visit her, and then they spend very little time together, before they're making out. And once they're in a committed relationship - based on god knows what - Noro turns into The Continent's equivalent of Edward Cullen, and Vaela obediently becomes Bella Swan, 2.0.
Her entire life is surrendered to the essence Noro; she falls into prolonged funks when he's away, and basically comes to the conclusion that the Topi are even worse than she already believed, because they'll hurt her man. It's aggravating, and is a big step backward from the imperfect but challenging heroines that we've gotten in the last few years, like Katniss.
She even makes her way back to the Spire for him, and promises to save everyone for him. It's a white savior complex predicated on the idea that Vaela really likes a dude, which is just exasperating again, because it undermines any gravitas that the book allegedly wanted to have.
If my back and forth on this book sounds confusing, it's because I don't think Drake knows what she was trying to write. It's a mixed message about warfare, seeing beyond race and culture (blergh) and how utopian societies are inherently problematic. But there's no overarching point, which makes the book confusing as hell.
Even the tagline is misleading - Vaela is in no way fighting for her life. At 65%, she's still trying to figure out fundamental things like washing her clothes and making meals, so this idea that she's going to be this great warrior is hilariously inaccurate. Instead, she whines her way into a life with Noro, which... is...also confusing.
However, I do hope this analysis as been enough to provide at least one example of the fact that there ARE issues with the book - particularly around race - and people aren't just assuming based on hearsay. I urge Harlequin to pull the book for revamping, and to NOT publish as is. As for the rest of you, skip it.
I would like to also offer sincere kudos to those who have spoken out against the book, especially Justina Ireland, Heidi Heilig and Elle. I'd also like to acknowledge the other authors formerly of the Swankies, who have taken a stand against the bad behavior involved with this book.
With that being said, will you sign this petition, asking Harlequin to please stop production so the book can be fixed?
ETA. On the off chance of Keira reading this...
Stuff like this? Does not make you look good to readers. It's insulting, condescending and a pointless ad hominem attack that makes you and your friends like childish and petty. Because your critics are pointing actual problems, where your friends are showing themselves to be incredibly idiotic.
Cut it out, please.