Published: 2 January 2018
Publisher: Harlequin TEEN
Category: Fantasy/Young Adult
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 locked in combat. Most citizens lucky enough to tour the Continent do so to observe the spectacle and violence of battle, a thing long vanished in the peaceful realm of the Spire. For Vaela, the war holds little interest. As a smart and talented apprentice cartographer—and a descendent of the Aven’ei herself—the journey is a dream come true: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve upon the maps she’s drawn of this vast, frozen land.
But Vaela’s dream all too quickly turns into 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 sight of the bloody battle being waged 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—and with an entirely new perspective as to what war truly means. Starving, alone, and lost in the middle of a war zone, Vaela must try to find a way home—but first, she must survive.
Rating: 3 Stars
This book has drawn a lot of attention from a variety of sources. This is my opinion of the book in its original form. I will be reading the final copy again at the next opportunity so that I might see what edits have been undertaken, what feedback has been addressed. Please be aware, then, that this review is not based on the final copy, though a spoiler warning is in effect, just in case.
This review got a bit long, so I’ll be breaking it up into parts that will make it easier to read my take on the elements I talk about here.
Early on we meet the Shaws, a family that are accompanying Vaela Sun’s family to the Continent. Mrs. Shaw is the perfect example of a haughty society woman that hasn’t a clue as to how things work outside of the image she has in her head. She spoke disdainfully not only of the two group living on the Continent, the Topi and the Aven’ei, but of her son’s decisions and the people that populate her own society.
Aaden Shaw, her son, was quite a smug character that I didn’t like. He felt like a temporary person for the time that I knew him and while he did get marginally better in attitude, I couldn’t seem to brush off his first impression of a smarmy know-it-all who thought himself too good to be socializing with Vaela and her family, the people of his family’s society. Before his exit, he proved my suspicious regarding his character correct, so I was less than sorry about it.
Vaela’s parents were kind people, but I thought there would be more about them. There was a feeling that there was some kind of information about her mother that might be revealed, though it turned out to be nothing. They did truly care for their daughter and showed more strength than the stereotypical society Shaws did.
Vaela was set up in the position of the privileged teenager with all the amenities of advanced wealth, including further education as a cartographer’s apprentice, a sixteenth birthday celebration whose expense bewildered me, and of course the trip to the Continent.
However, for all her advantages, I did not find her personality in the beginning to be as grating or childish as one would expect from this kind of character. She definitely didn’t realize quite how lucky she was, but neither did she wave any of her privilege in the face of her peers.
Vaela did learn quickly how foolish she and the people back on the Spire were regarding the people of the Continent. In the opening of chapter five she explicitly mentions how her views were so wrong, as are those of her contemporaries, and she realizes that not only are their views wrong, but that they’re so wrong that it takes far too much for them to be changed. That it took seeing a battle, a decapitation, having a head flung at her, for her views to really be affected.
I think her reaction might also be a statement to how people can acknowledge that something is wrong, but also want to deny how much they ignored the depth of the wrongness. When Aaden is telling Vaela about the history of the Topi and the Aven’ei, she recollects a half remembered lesson about the Aven’ei wanting to join the Spire in peace, but mentions that she never considered that one side might have been trying to defend itself from the other, then dismissing it as “very sad” in the next sentence. That portion felt like she was trying to give herself an excuse for not remembering, for not learning. It’s very similar to issues that we’re facing today, where if you’re not of a certain race or religious group, you might ignore the issues they’re facing. This is an obviously wrong conclusion, with Vaela standing as evidence in this case.
Noro, an Aven’ei man that saves Vaela shortly after her arrival, is my favorite character because he is one of the only people to constantly challenge or call Vaela out on her privilege and her way of thinking. She tended to become something of a lofty dreamer and he was the realist that brought he back to Earth where she needed to be in order to survive. He had a lot of responsibility on his shoulders, taking care of the family that he had left after losing many members to a Topi attack.
The brief interlude between Aaden and Vaela did not have much emotion to it. If anything could be described as instalove it is certainly this, because these two have known each other for a handful of days and Aaden has already decided he’d like to court Vaela upon their return to the Spire, a precursor to marriage. Given all the other advances and advantages that seem evident in this world, I’m surprised this sort of arrangement would still be so prevalent. Vaela’s reaction to her first kiss made some sense, given that she was away from home and possibly not thinking clearly, but I’m surprised she didn’t think about how being courted would affect her cartography career. I’m glad their interaction ended quickly because Aaden’s true colors, as evidenced by his action during the heli-plane malfunction, were despicable for a gentleman.
The love story the developed between Noro and Vaela had some difficult elements for me and I think that Noro said it best. Having left her in the care of a village healer for 40 days, Noro said early on that Vaela missing him and longing to see him during this separation was inappropriate because she was grieving for her family and what she’d lost. Even months later, it didn’t feel like this was an authentic love interest primarily because I don’t think that Vaela ever truly healed from the loss of her family and is merely holding on to the first good thing that came into her life after the plane crash and the Topi incident.
Noro’s feelings on this matter are much more unclear as I cannot understand why he is in love with her. There is something to admire in her, I suppose, in that she changed from a spoiled girl used to servants and luxuries to someone that works hard in a rather stinky business and takes care of her own home, but what of her character? They don’t spend much time together, as is evidenced by Vaela mentioning how often and for how long Noro is sent off on his missions. If this were happening in modern day or even in the Spire, where some sort of long distance communication were possible like our equivalent email or text messages, etc., then I might have given more weight to their confessions.
When, at the end of chapter nineteen, both Noro and Vaela confirm their feelings for each other, I had a feeling of discomfort. I’ve never been a fan of instalove and while I’m not sure that this situation constitutes instalove (this happened at roughly the three month mark since these two met), I felt awkward about it because of the explanation Noro had given for her initial feelings being inappropriate.
Vaela’s judgement was quite poor regarding Noro upon their first meeting. Considering the experience she had just had with the Topi (a whole other issue), she was far too trusting too quickly. He helped her a little and she immediately feels completely at ease with him. That’s a terrifying thought and I couldn’t understand how she could let all of her guards down in this manner.
I am conflicted about her interaction with Noro in regards to traveling to his village and what to do once there. On the one hand, while traveling she had a rather haughty manner and should have deferred to him because she a) knows nothing of traveling by foot in general and b) knows even less about traversing the landscape of the Continent. Once near the village, I understand why she’d want to seek a way home first, rather than listening to Noro, who wants her to get medical assistance. In the first instance, wary though she should be of a stranger, she should have listened to someone obviously more familiar with the territory. In the second, considering that she admitted to herself that she was sicker than she was letting on, she should have realized that seeking medical help was more important because a delay could kill her.
While the longer Vaela stayed on the Continent she did develop life skills previously unknown to her, she also became more horribly foolish. There is a battle near the end where she dashes out into the battle between the Topi and the Aven’ei, even though Noro told her to stay safe in her house. Despite knowing that she is not skilled enough to help, knowing that she will likely die, the slight possibility that she will kill even one Topi is enough for her to disregard the care that someone has for her and fling herself straight into danger. It is by the sheer grace of whatever deity is in this world that she wasn’t harmed in the ensuing battle.
Even though it is clear Vaela prefers and even at times admires the Aven’ei, there are small moments that underline what I think is an enduring snobbishness. When, for example, Keiji (Noro’s little brother) is showing her the new home graciously gifted to her by the Aven’ei elders, she makes a mental comment regarding the chamber pot in the bathroom and how the people in the Spire haven’t used them in AGES. It’s so small I almost missed it, but thinking back on it, it felt like a bratty thing to say at least, if not downright disrespectful.
Vaela also doesn’t seem to respect an individual’s right to not like her. Shoshi, an Aven’ei elder, does not like her when they meet and that’s fine. He’s not cruel and works with her, but hedoesn’t like her. This, however, is unsatisfactory to her and she says: “And in any case, people always like me. Shoshi doesn’t get to be any different.” That rubbed me the wrong way because she’s a) not respecting his choice and b) acting like she’s perfect and there’s no way anyone could dislike her. That’s the height of snobbery and makes her less likable and less pitiable in any circumstance, much less her current one.
I thought that by the end she might have grown a little clearer eyed in regards to her vision of the world, but her return to the Spire illustrated that she was even blinder to reality than I thought. She wholeheartedly believed that one person, a privileged teenager that her society has never seen as anything but a pampered girl, will be able to change a society’s mindset after two hundred years of a singular way of thinking. She seeks to return to the Spire, her supposedly two hundred year peaceful society, and ask them for help, expecting it to be given automatically.
Noro was right, I believe, when he said that the people of the Spire would not help because they have seen what is going on and they do not care anymore. The actions of the Topi and the Aven’ei are a spectacle to them and why should they interfere in that? It’s a despicable viewpoint, of course, but her belief that her singular account will change all of that exasperated me. I didn’t think that it would happen either a) as easily as she seems to believe it would or b) at all. The fact that some part of the Spire does react at all either means that she is given more weight and power than I believe she’s capable of, or there’s more at work behind the scenes that will be revealed in a future book regarding these Western separatists.
Vaela is the primary character we see develop in this story and while there are others than make modest changes in their behavior, such as accepting her into their village or saving her from an axe, there was no real development of them. Even Noro, the main love interest, did not change much from when she first met him to their final embrace on the last page. I would have liked to see a lot more from the various characters, learn more about them and see them actually matter on the page, like the village healer or Yuki, a female warrior that Vaela befriends.
Comparison to Real War
There was a chapter, and a discussion between Vaela, Noro, Takashi, and Yuki, that had a lot of relevance to current events. It struck a chord when, in chapter twenty-one, Vaela brought up the fact that the Topi, while guilty of many vicious acts, were still human. They are brothers, fathers, sons, real people as opposed to the faceless monsters that many of the Aven’ei sees them as, like Yuki and Noro protest that they are. I think that this is relevant when thinking about wars being fought now because, while one country may think they have the superior right in invading another land and slaughtering the people there for some reason, be it oil or other natural resources, there are people in that country that will inevitably see them as the enemy. It is easy to forget that just as many of the Aven’ei view the Topi as monsters, the Topi too see them as monsters, contrary to their way of life. This doesn’t excuse any of the actions that either side takes, but rather looks at why they might behave as they do.
There were definitely instances of problematic content, chief of which was the view that the Spire people had of the Topi and the Aven’ei. However, it didn’t get better when the author actually introduced us to members of these people.
Shortly after the tragic event that strands Vaela on the Continent, she is taken by two Topi, one of which wounds her to dissuade her from escaping and later attempts to rape her after getting drunk by a campfire. This kind of behavior to illustrate the behavior of a people felt unnecessary, particularly when taking into account that he had just stabbed her with an arrow. That was enough to demonstrate a cruel person, did attempted sexual assault really needed to be added into the mix?
I was glad that Noro, an Aven’ei man, called Vaela out on the views of her and her people regarding their views of the people on the Continent, how watching them was a spectacle, like watching zoo animals. He could not comprehend how they could view the horrors of war that he’d lost his family to as entertainment, nor should he have had to.
I found Keira Drake’s writing style to be pleasant enough, though there was something slightly off about the tense of words that I caught myself automatically changing in my head every so often. Some examples are when Vaela says “I shift uncomfortably” and my head translates to “I shifted uncomfortably”, or the instances when “says” is used rather than “said”. The style wasn’t wrong, exactly, but it struck me as odd.
I think that there was a good basic premise, though with some poor judgement in regards to the problematic content. Hopefully the editing process between now and the release will fix this.