For those unaware of the controversy surrounding this book: This advanced reading copy was released late last year, and was immediately picked apart by reviewers that got their hands on it as being extremely racist and horribly insensitive. It blew up enough that Harlequin Teen has postponed the release of the finished novel, and Drake is (allegedly) reworking it. There's a question surrounding it if it can be "fixed," and I'll be throwing in my own two cents on the subject.
I got my hands on it more or less by coincidence: my sister went to the downtown branch of the library for a program and it happened to just be sitting there. Because she was aware of the controversy, she grabbed it for me. This was not a hate read for me. I don't hate read, I don't have the time or energy. But I also found it hugely important to expose myself to the content myself. I'm not going to be the last word on any of this; many people more informed and with more of a personal stake have written about it in depth, from Native American scholar Debbie Reese to author Zoraida Cordova.
First off: the book itself. It's impossible to separate it from its ideas and prejudices. It shocked me that almost every page was imbued with casual-to-very active racism, and some sexism and ableism, too! If it could be, the story-the story would simply be fine. The characters would be okay. If you read lots of YA, or even just a sampling, you've read this stuff before, especially with what passes for fantasy nowadays--meaning bland, simplistic and unimaginatively derivative. I hate the term world building now, because I see it being so overused in incorrect ways, but this... this ranges from boring and illogical to, as I will discuss, offensive.
The peaceful, superior Spirians are made up of four nations: East, west, North and South. We're told that the Southerners have "olive skin" (I cannot even go into why I dislike so much that recent YA authors have picked this up; they don't know what it is and use it as a catch all for white person who can be vaguely POC but is still white) and the Westerners have dark skin but also blue eyes so pale they could be white. First off, ew, how is that attractive and not actually frightening, but secondly can we please stop with the dark, dark skin with some typically white feature that makes them "remarkable?" And the first and most prominent Westerner throughout the novel is a servant, a groundskeeper at their fancy resort. I wanted to put that out, since people seem to think their inclusion somehow negates the rest of the racism in the book.
Only the most affluent Spirians tour the Continent, and sixteen year-old Vaela Sun's family is lucky enough to ensure her a visit for her birthday. We see the Spirians as spoiled and finicky, but generally good-natured, their fussy eccentricities smiled and laughed at.
When we get to the Continent, or rather above it, as they use "heli-planes" to conduct the actual tour (and here I thought that they, at one point, told me that it would break some sort of treaty if they set foot on the land, but it's never brought up again so... ???) I got a real Victorian "the Dark Continent" sort of vibe from all of this, the way we viewed Africa a hundred years ago as unexplored and wild. Vaela is an apprentice mapmaker, so her interest is almost strictly academic. They witness the horrendous violence of war--or, more accurately, of the Topi--and are disheartned and sickened that there can still be such savagery in the world.
Yes. The Topi. It's literally only one letter off of the Hopi, and make no mistake, despite what Drake has said later in her defense about them being based on the Uruk-hai on Tolkien's LOTR or, let's face it, Peter Jackson's. What the author describes of the Topi village is just Hopi cliff dwellings, their colors and "war paint" evocative directly of those people. And she uses every Native American stereotype perpetuated for hundreds of years! Ignoring the fact that Tolkien shouldn't be anyone's defense towards diversity, the Topi are described time and time again as only men, but as shown in the book, by example, we see brutal, animalistic, drunken non-humans who kill their enemies in the most viscous ways possible seemingly simply for the pleasure of it.
The people on the other side of the war are the Aven'ei. Despite the name just being nonsensical, these are basically the Japanese. With names like Keiji, Yuki, Takashi, Noro, it's not even disguised; these are not Japanese-inspired names, these are LITERALLY JAPANESE NAMES. And while we clearly see them as more human as the Topi, we do so by Western/"Spirian" standards. Save us from the fantasy world building that takes a real world people and simply takes what the author was interested in/what she knows from popular culture, and then fills in the rest with our western white standards. Their homes are very Western with tables and chairs and loveseats, they've adopted whatever common language the Spirians speak despite the fact that they have absolutely no contact with the Spirians (and, yes, I am aware that the author most likely did this to make communication between Noro and Vaela easier, but it's lazy and that's part of the larger problem), and they're all inexplicably over six feet tall.
So, Vaela lives with the Aven'ei after being rescued by Noro from Topi who attempt to rape her, settles into a life with them. Of course SHE'S not prejudiced and is SHOCKED that other people might be judging her simply on her differing appearance and that beautiful, shimmering golden hair which no one can stop themselves from commenting on. Because Spirians can't be racist! Even when we see them at the end of the book, when Vaela is begging them to intervene in the war, they're exposed as bureaucratic and stagnant, not at all racist!
And, yes, Vaela's solution to build a wall along the Topi/Aven'ai border is more than unfortunate. And I have to think about an editor, accepting that this was written before Trump's plan was unveiled, not going back to the text and thinking, Hmm... maybe we should change that a little?
Vaela impassioned plea on the Aven'ei behalf causes the Westerners to break from the Spire and show up in a fleet of their heli-planes to scare and chastise the tribal people into doing what they say. This is a actual line from the book:
"It is done now," I say, gesturing up at the heli-planes. "The West has come to ensure peace. You need never wear the shadow of the itzatsune again."
Rubs temples. But no, this isn't about white savioring at all.
So, what would generally be a mediocre book with nothing exceptional about it becomes a sort of racist opus. Can it be fixed? It would not only require a rewrite so massive, it'd essentially be a different book, but a true understanding on the behalf of the author, which she's proved she does not yet have.