For her sixteenth birthday, Vaela Sun receives the most coveted gift in all the Spire—a trip to the Continent. It seems an unlikely destination for a holiday: a cold, desolate land where two “uncivilized” nations remain perpetually at war. Most citizens tour the Continent to see the spectacle and violence of battle—a thing long vanished in the Spire. For Vaela—a smart and talented apprentice cartographer—it is an opportunity to improve upon the maps she’s drawn of this vast, frozen land.
But an idyllic aerial exploration is not to be had: the realities of war are made clear in a bloody battle seen from the heli-plane during the tour, leaving Vaela forever changed. And when a tragic accident leaves her stranded on the Continent, she has no illusions about the true nature of the danger she faces. Starving, alone, and lost in the middle of a war zone, Vaela must try to find a way home—but first, she must survive.
Title: The Continent
Author: Keira Drake
Published: January 2017
Update: On 11/07/16 the official Harlequin Twitter released this statement, saying they plan on rectifying the problems of The Continent. I contacted them for further information about their plan, however I have received no information back. I only hope they can properly fix the racist depictions and stereotypes in this book.
Before we get started I just want to share this petition directed at the editorial board of Harlequin to delay the publication of this book so the racist material inside can be heavily edited. Please consider signing this petition, it needs about 400 more to reach it’s current goal.
So The Continent….
The Continent, The Continent, The Continent….
It might sound like I’m stalling, but in all reality, I’m just so absolutely baffled that I don’t know where to even begin with this review. Whether I should question just how a novel so racist was published, though that really shouldn’t be too hard to figure out.
Whether I should start with the rather piss-poor writing combined with said racism.
Or whether I should talk about how women of color like Justina Ireland and Elle from @ElleOnWords were attacked on Twitter (and in Justina’s case, on Amazon and Goodreads) for talking about just how bad this book is.
Maybe I should start from the beginning? But before I do that I want to assure anyone who’s already thinking this. Yep, I did read this book. Front to back. I made notes, I recorded things I wanted to talk about. I have read this book in it’s entirety, so I know what these 320-or-so pages hold.
I found this book at work, we get a handful of advanced copies maybe twice a month. I saw this in the pile, stared at the rather pretty cover, but put it back in the box, not bothering to really look anymore into it. The next day the shit storm began. Justina read her advanced copy, posting screenshots and the like, and whew boy….
Needless to say this book is a mess, but before I actually get into this book, I want to share Justina’s thread about this book, and all the issues she found with it.
So I dove right in. At first there weren’t any major problems. This read like a stereotypical late 00’s YA novel though. Rich, boring white girl in a dress, a boy with striking blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and a shitty personality to match. But that all ended at the 15 page mark, where we are first told about the two warring tribes of Native peoples.
And let me add that until around maybe a quarter of the way in, the only words used to describe these tribes are ‘savage’, ‘uncivilized’, and ‘dirty’. But now we have an entire cast of racists, one of whom we’re supposed to sympathize with? We’re expected to relate to this girl while she goes on for hundreds of pages calling these tribes savages, unclean and uncivilized, realizing that they are in fact human beings (well one of them is at least)? It makes my blood boil just thinking about it.
Then we have the tribes themselves. One of which is inarguably a stand-in for Native Americans (though Drake claims they’re representative of the Uruk-Hai from Lord of the Rings? You know, the really racist orcs?), described as having ‘reddish-brown’ skin who wear ‘bright colors and headdresses’. The other tribe, the Aven’ei lean more towards insulting Japanese people, one of our secondary characters being apart of that tribe. He’s a literal ‘ninja-assassin’ with ‘almond shaped eyes’.
But wait! If that isn’t bad enough, here are some additional details. The Topi (Native Americans) are ‘the worst of the bunch’. They violently kill their enemies (decapitating an Aven’ei and throwing the head at the helicopter our MC is riding in). They also get ‘violently’ drunk the first night our MC spends with them, one of the tribesman even going so far as attempting to rape her, because uncivilized right???
The our friend Noro sweeps in and kills the potential rapist, taking the MC to his tribe and introducing us to the racism of the Aven’ei.
They’re so based in Japanese culture that I can’t imagine how Drake thinks we can believe they aren’t. And they’re ‘apparently’ much more ‘civilized’ than the Topi, so there’s a lot of racism directed towards the Topi
But along the way we really get some insight to just how our MC’s mind works. See she’s a cartographer, a person who makes maps. Both for personal use and for fun. Noro doesn’t understand that (okay?), and when he questions exactly why a cartographer would be interested in that, the MC says, and I quote (i really don’t care if I get in trouble for this one)
“And you’ll pardon me to say that I think your opinion is wholly influenced by the fact that you come from a nation at war. When a society has no use for such brutality, its citizens are able to indulge in more enriching pursuits.”
So…. remind me again who I’m expected to sympathize with? I’d also like to take this time to add that the first speaking role a non-white character gets is 55 pages in. And he’s a groundskeeper….
Then around the time we have 60 pages left, and this really might be the most unbelievable part, but our MC returns home with the promise of bringing back reinforcements for the Aven’ei, which she has now been accepted into and falled in love with Noro in the span of a handful of pages (there’s the mention of months passing, but it’s literally a line). So our white MC is bringing her white friends to help fight and defeat this tribe that’s an obvious stand-in for Native American tribes.
Do I honestly have to discuss just how fucked up that is?
Thankfully it doesn’t come to fruition, except it sort of does? The Westerners come to the rescue at the end, and promise to end the Topi, all without the authorization of the Spire? Half of this is unclear and muddled, and the rest has some weird undertones that make you wonder whether or not the Westerners are going to take over The Continent?
We’ve also got a blatant white-saviorism narrative going on. Again, I really don’t care if I get in trouble for this, but on page 229 our main character tells this to Noro.
“Oh Noro, I would never be parted from you.I give you my word that I will return. And when I do, I will bring peace to The Continent. One way or another, I will bring peace.”
So the ending revolves around the MC bringing her reinforcements to guarantee the Aven’ei have their victory over the Topi, and then that’s all interrupted by the Westerners. But this isn’t White Saviorism right? The book also states that the two tribes have been at war for 340 years. I am not exaggerating, and yet the only thing that can end it is our white MC. I just… I can’t!
So, even without all the blatantly racist imagery, stereotypes, and characterizations, we’ve still got what amounts to be a pretty bad book. Our MC, Vaela is boring. I don’t like the term Mary-Sue because it’s usually reserved as an insult for characters I actually really like, but Vaela is a Mary Sue. More in the self-insert way than she is in the ‘I’m good at everything I ever do ever’ category, though apparently she has an ‘affinity’ for knives despite no training, and can rally an entire nation that has lived in peace for decades (I’m assuming? Again, poor world building) to get involved in a war they want no part of.
Noro, our Aven’ei friend, is also pretty stereotypical. A distant warrior/archer type dude who acts as if he hates the MC (with good reason, at 130 pages in he’s the first to call the MC on her racist bullshit) but ends up falling in love with her anyway. He’s just bland. They also fall in love SUPER quick. Like Vaela mentions that 40-days or so have passed and about 10 pages later they’re kissing and he’s willing to stop the world for her or whatever YA-authors think teenagers say nowadays.
There’s also a handful of side characters that don’t help this book’s cause. Being both racist characters, and racist interpretations of characters. Aaden (I can only think of the Key and Peele Substitute Teacher sketch when I see this name. “You done messed up A-A-den!”) Thankfully he dies pretty early on, so he isn’t around long.
And the world is also a complete mess. Never once did I understand what the Spire was, despite it being built us as this amazing utopia. It got hints of Imperial-style England’s influence (which isn’t surprising in the least honestly) but we hardly get to see the actual city of the Spire. And that’s another thing. Is the Spire even a city? Is the city on top of it? Does it make up the city itself? Is it just a landmark the way it appears on the cover? It isn’t explored in the least. And is the Spire a floating island? At some point they mentioned having to fly over a body of water to reach the Continent itself, so is the Spire an island? Or does it hover close to the Continent? How did all this come to be? We also get short mentions of cities to the North, South, and West (I believe the Spire lies in the East…)
It’s also pretty ironic that this world is designed so piss-poorly and yet the MC is a cartographer (thank you Anjulie for pointing that out to me!)
And how have the tribes of The Continent been at war for 340 years without technological developments? Or interacted with the Spire or it’s people? They obviously have access to alcohol, so why are these tribes so ‘primitive’.
Vaela also implies that her own people have never been at war (yeah, white people never going to war. That’s believable) So how did they come to be in the Spire? Was it just placed there by aliens? Some ancient relic? It just makes no sense when you give it about 10 minutes of thought.
Then you have the Continent, and the things built around it. How did all of this happen? Why are there only two groups of people on something called ‘The Continent’. Of course there’s no regulation for how big a continent has to be, but given the ones on our own planet, even the smallest (Australia) holds hundreds of Indigenous nations and languages (including Aboriginal tribes, the Torres Strait Islander peoples, the Ngarti people, the Kija, the Ngandi. A full map can be found here). Even in places as small as New Zealand, you have dozens of tribes and sub-tribes.
I want to thank my friend Anjulie @YA_Geek for providing me with these resources.
It really just solidifies that fact that this world is poorly thought out, poorly planned.
My last big pet peeve regarding the world are the vehicles in which our MC, her family, racist boy she kisses after knowing for 20 pages, and racist boy’s family take to the Continent. It seems like a weird thing to call out, but surprisingly enough these things are a fairly big part of the story, and again it contributes to the sub-par world building. These helicopter-airplane hybrid vehicles contain escape pods, none of which had ever been used. EVER. And according to this world, there must be at least a dozen of these vehicles, and none of the escape pods have ever had to be used. I find that incredibly unlikely.
These pods also don’t come with easy and ready to use radios and beacons that apparently only have a radius of 20 miles (it’s stated in the text that the pod was found 300 miles from the Spire)? Sure another heli-place tries to find her, but like… throw in a flare? Survival supplies like food and water? A radio so our MC doesn’t maybe get stuck on a land of people that are apparently so violent and uncivilized that they kill at a moment’s notice. So… major oversight by the Spire’s government. Do they even have one of those? Or is it a monarchy? Religious-oligarchy? Who even knows!
There’s also this really weird scene when the copter is going down, where Aaden tries to take the escape pod, and these people have a LOT of time to fight over who gets it. So how high up is this copter? And wait, is there only one escape pod? On a vessel meant to carry at least 6 people, and at most 10, there’s one escape pod, with only enough room to fit one person?
I would also like to take this time to talk a little about Drake’s response at the time of my writing this. Just a short bit because this review has gone on for too long at this point.
- Just because you can ‘claim’ Native ancestry among other things (which itself comes from England invading multiple countries, America among them obviously) doesn’t mean you can’t write racist portrayals.
- The Uruk-Hai are one of Tolkien’s more blatantly racist creations. I love the man’s writing and world, but let’s call it what it is. So comparing the ‘red-skinned’ Natives in ‘colorful headdresses’ to racist orcs REALLY isn’t a good thing.
- You’re telling me you named your characters Noro, Yuki, Keiji, and Takashi, but expected them not to be associated with Japanese peoples, let alone ANY peoples in eastern Asia. Okay…….
- She says steps are being taken to address the problems in this book, but doesn’t mention exactly what is being done. I know she probably doesn’t have an exact plan of action at this time. This has happened over a weekend, and it can be hard to come up with a plan on the fly. But a simple mention, like maybe a total rewrite of the racist scenes/portrayals, would’ve been appreciated. (At this time, Keira has not answered my direct tweet towards her questioning exactly what she plans to do about racism in The Continent).
- Your intent doesn’t matter Keira. What matters is what you put on the page, and what readers have gleaned from it. And if you’re sitting there, wondering why all these connections made between the racist parts of your book, sit back, listen, and think about exactly how these connections were made. What did you write that could’ve lead to these connections. And how can you do better? That is how you move forward.
Overall The Continent is grossly-racist to say the least. It’s portrayals of Native people are blatantly offensive. And when it isn’t the overall story and world building is weak. One last point I want to make is that myself, a white, male-passing person has yet to receive any threats from ‘fans’ of this book. And yet people of color (more specifically women of color) have received multiple threats. Ranging from people contacting Justina’s publisher and leaving reviews on the Amazon pages of her books, to bloggers being told that they should be ‘jumped and stabbed’.
Now this opens straight up into a part of racism I really can’t speak too deeply into because it’s impossible for me as a white person to have experienced it. But I hope it’s obvious to everyone the harm this book has caused. These women simply spoke out against a book that could potentially do harm to thousands of readers, so what was the reaction?
To attack these women, saying that they hadn’t ‘read the book’ so they couldn’t possibly have an opinion. Justina has herself been accused of being a mob-head to attack the author despite simply pointing out the racist implications of this book, and then, when the author directly messaged her about it (not even asking to discuss, just jumping right into her inbox), saying her truths and talking about the book for what it is. All this for calling out a racist book. I made a point the other day, and I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I feel like it’s pertinent in this discussion (though I highly doubt I’m the first person to make this point)
When you call our a Racist Book, only one person is ‘hurt’.
But when a racist book is published, it has the potential to hurt hundreds of thousands of people. Words have meaning, and I find it funny that books are the most important way of learning except when that book is being called out for blatant racism, homophobia, transphobia. Then we’re attempting to ‘censor’ or ‘ban’ a book (despite this book not being cancelled? Drake herself clarified that some sort of work is being put into this book to ‘fix’ it.)
I’d also like to point out for the people saying this has caused nothing but ‘drama’, you’re a part of the problem. When you diminish issues like these, or say “that’s not what the author meant” or “you’re just being sensitive” you’re telling the people this book has hurt that their feelings don’t matter. It’s been heart-breaking seeing Native readers on Twitter talk about how this book makes them feel, how they feel ‘represented’ in this book. It’s nothing short of shameful to call this book and the controversy surrounding it ‘drama’.
The Continent is poorly written, but above all it’s blatantly racist, and buying these books and not calling-out these authors only adds to the myriad of problems that plague publishing today. If you are interested in buying The Continent to see ‘if it’s racist’ for yourself, I beg you not to. Publishers will only pay attention if the sales fail. It doesn’t matter if this book has 2,000 1-star ratings, if it sells well, that is what the publisher looks at.
Instead support Native authors. You can use the hashtag #NativeReads on twitter for lists upon lists of books by Native authors. My friend Weezie also has a twitter thread of books by Native authors to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.
Here is also a list provided by the First Nations Development Institute that lists 30 ‘must-read’ kids books by Native authors! There is also AmericanIndiansInChildrensLiterature.net and they have a ton of lists, resources, and reviews of books!
In fact, Debbie does so much work for Native readers and writers that I want to share a few more of her posts that she graciously sent me!
- Her List of Resources Posted to the School Library Journal
- Best Books By or About American Natives
- A List of 100 Books by Indigenous Masters
- A List of Board Books for Toddlers & Early Readers
- And a More Recent Article Published in English Journal
Thank you Debbie for sharing all these resources, if you aren’t already following Debbie (like I wasn’t!) then make sure you do!
I’d also like to thank Anjulie (again), C.T. Callahan, and Weezie for beta reading this review for sensitivity purposes. These ladies are all fantastic and speak out regularly against social injustices, so follow them! And thank you all so much for donating your time to read this review beforehand.
If you see any problematic terms or wording I used then please let me know by either leaving a comment or contacting me via Twitter, I will make the change as soon as I can.