Nov 5, 2016
If you are on twitter, and follow bookish people, you wouldn't have missed the intense discussion that The Continent has brought on. It has been called out for containing racism, for its use of offensive racial slurs, and problematic rep overall. People who have read it, came up with their opinions, while some who haven't read it yet, decided to boycott it. I myself, had an ARC of The Continent at my disposal from BEA, and decided to read the book and see it all for myself, as I firmly believe that I can only judge a book after I've read it. So I did it, read it, in fact, read it ultra carefully, dissecting it as a critic and not a reader, and here are my thoughts about The Continent by Keira Drake.
*This review might have mild spoilers, though I tried to make them as vague as possible*
Vaela is a 16 year old aspiring cartographer - her passion lies in drawing maps, and her one dream is to tour the continent. Vaela lives in Spire, a dystopian society where four nations have come together and live in ultimate peace. Then there's the continent, a vast space of land which is gorgeous in its geography and brutal in its wars. Two tribes live in this continent, Topi and Aven'ei, who are considered uncivilized and uncultured by the people of the Spire. Touring the continent, however is a matter of prestige. The high society civilians of Spire find it fascinating to experience the spectacle that is created as the two tribes of The continent wage war against each other. Vaela however, longs to draw the continent, wants to map out the land, and gets a chance to do so when she receives tickets on her 16th birthday. However, all her dreams crashes, when the trip takes a drastic turn, and she finds herself stranded in the continent, living along with one of the tribes, her life changing forever.
First of all, let's talk about the positive aspects of the story, shall we? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, is the main character Vaela's character development. She's the ultimate spoilt and privileged teenager when we meet her first, and she goes through quite a long journey and her transformation from a helpless teen to a wise and strong girl is truly noteworthy.
Some of the characters were truly delightful. Noro - the love interest, who was deadly, calm and swoony all wrapped into one, Keiji - his adorable yet strong younger brother, Yuki - a fierce female warrior and great friend, Shoshi - one cranky, grumpy yet interesting Aven'ei. They all added their own charm and depth to the story.
Then there's the theme of war and peace. I am a reader who appreciates carefully and masterfully dealt violence in books immensely. I consider violence and war, an education. A beautiful and horrifying reminder of what certain decisions can lead to, the ultimate consequences of wrong doings. Drake has attempted to go and dissect the roots of war and peace. She has tried to bring out the concept that all entities involved in a war are humans after all, everyone is at fault somehow, and the need for peace has to be recognised and realized by all these parties involved.
To be honest, if you ask me, with that concept, Drake could have produced a masterpiece. She could've ended up creating a story which beautifully dissects and deals with the blurred lines between war and peace. But where she went wrong? She forgot to pay attention to the heavy symbolism in her book.
That brings us to the elephant in the room. Keira Drake made a huge mistake when she decided to base off the two "uncivilized" tribes off on actual cultures, The thing is this, you can write fantasy or dytopia based on existing cultures. That's fine. But what happened here, is that the author based off two tribes who were intended to be uncivilized, uncultured, primitive and barbarian, on existing cultures. In The Continent, we see two tribes. The Topi, are based on native americans, while the Aven'ei are inspired by the Japanese. Two ethnicity groups who are so rich in their culture, dismissed as primitives. And the best part is that it is glaringly obvious that the people of the Spire are white. This whole setting brings about vibes of colonization all over again, and there lies the major problem of The Continent.
I really don't know whether she intended it to be this way. Whether she really meant to be racist, if I put it bluntly. However, it was extremely ill done. It was natural that people of the culture would be offended, considering their people were portrayed as bloodthirsty, primitive savages with no civilization present. And then come the racial slurs along with it. The Topi being called "savages" and comments about the Aven'ei's "almond shaped eyes" were just, uncalled for, I guess?
Calling this book out for racism has a lot of dimensions. If you ask me, the book as a whole is not racist. But this book contains heavy racial symbolism, that is just plain offensive. On top of all this, is the cherry on top, the concept of "the white redeemer and saviour" All of this combined act as the downfall of the book. But the tragic thing is that the book would've been an amazing creation if not for all this.
Throughout the entire thing, I kept thinking about how if the tribes and the people of the Spire had no physical descriptions, no attributes specific to any culture, but rather were all just human beings, portraying the innermost and primitive nature existing in all humans, without any symbolism to any culture or ethnicity, what Keira Drake ultimately wanted to bring out in the book could've been achieved beautifully with none of these issues and problems brought in the midst.
Overall, The Continent is one interesting mess. I don't want to lie and say that the book isn't problematic. But I also want to say this - don't let it be the determining factor of the book. The story is original, the concept unique, and Keira's imagination and writing is remarkable. If one can look past the insensitivity and offensive symbolism, then yes, I would even recommend the book to you. But if you can't, and I can totally understand your feelings if that's the case - just stay far away.