An OwnVoice novel that had problematic Indian representation
Disclaimer: I received an eARC copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
The Bookweaver's Daughter
Published June 2018 by Tanglewood
Data from Goodreads
In the ancient Indian kingdom of Kasmira, stories don’t begin with “once upon a time.”
Instead, Kasmiris start a woman’s story with those who came before her: her parents, grandparents, ancestors. For fourteen-year-old Reya Kandhari, her story always starts the same: with the fabled line of Bookweavers, tracing centuries back to the lost Yogis—the mythical guardians of Kasmiri culture who created the world itself. As a result, Reya’s entire life has been shaped by words. Words of mystique and mythology. Words of magic that allow her father, the Bookweaver, to bring his stories to life. Words of power that make him the target of tyrants who will stop at nothing to destroy magic in Kasmira.
Living in disguise as a peasant in the fields, Reya’s sole focus is protecting the Bookweaver’s secret. But when her father is taken, Reya must flee deep into the jungle, alone with her best friend Nina and one ancient book. Grappling with Reya’s newfound magic, the two girls find themselves in the center of a war of liberation where magic reigns unchecked, and destiny takes a dark turn. As the stakes get higher, Reya realizes that her father’s legacy contains more power than she ever imagined. For Reya Kandhari is more than just a fugitive—she is a symbol of revolution. And that makes her a threat.
My Review: A Problematic OwnVoice Novel
When I received an ARC for this, I was over the moon! I’m always looking for more Indian representation in books. And when I read the first chapter, I thought this novel was it. I loved the prose and was so excited to continue reading. Unfortunately, my excitement didn’t last long.
Here is my biggest issue with this novel: it is not a good OwnVoice representation. Apart from the mention of some clothing and food items, there was barely any incorporation of Indian culture. This was such a huge disappointment to me because it would have made the worldbuilding and story itself stand out. Also, and this may sound petty, the main character says NAAN BREAD multiple times during the story. Naan actually means bread … so essentially, we have an MC of Indian origin who continually says “bread bread” and this is NOT OKAY. I have spent a good portion of my life patiently correcting non-Indians over this so to see an Indian character repeatedly make this mistake just really irked me.
But this isn’t the biggest problem in terms of representation. I was deeply uncomfortable to see the author pitting two different religious factions against each other. Kasmira, which sounds a lot like Kashmir, is a kingdom under control of the evil Zakirs (which is a pretty Muslim sounding name) and they have hunted down/killed many mages and Yogis (which is a Hindu term). Perhaps, the author was trying to allude to the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus back in 1989 – but there was no sensitivity given to this topic. If you are going to speak about a contentious historical event, it needs to be handled with care and respect. And considering the current political situation in India, there is an even greater call for responsible writing – and that was not shown at all in this book. WE DO NOT NEED TO VILLAINIZE ANY RELIGIOUS FACTION OR GROUP! This was not something I was expecting to read in an Indian-inspired novel and it is not something I as an OwnVoice reviewer feels best represents Indian culture.
In terms of the actual story, this novel was not executed well at all. When you have a very generic plot, you should at least try and ensure that the rest of the story is good enough to make up for it. But that didn’t happen here. The pacing of the story was far too quick for my liking. It felt like it was taking place over a few days rather than months, and so many details were missing throughout. There also wasn’t enough of an opportunity to get to know any of the other characters and feel anything towards them.
And that brings me to the main character of the story: Reya. She is the most incoherent character I have come across. For the life of me, I have no idea who she is or what is going through her mind. Her moments of self-pity and guilt quickly give way to unwarranted anger. The author never actually allows the reader to experience things alongside Reya. In fact, there is so much telling vs showing that the book got boring.
Reya also constantly blames herself for everything. But the thing is … it would only make sense if she actually did something. Throughout the novel, all she does is follow the instructions of others. There is not a single moment where she makes any decision herself, without the aid of others. And the fact that she says (Click to reveal spoiler) she is being mistreated and tortured by the King, when she is literally treated as his guest, was baffling .
I also found Devendra, one of the main villains of the story, to be a mashup of Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender and Inan from Children of Blood and Bone. While both of these characters were my favourites in their respective stories, Devendra lacked their depth and complexity. The same can be said for his father’s character, who is supposed to be this absolutely evil tyrant – but he only really makes an appearance near the end of the book.
The only character I liked (from the few moments where her personality came through) was Nina and (Click to reveal spoiler) I personally had no idea why their bond was as strong as it was. Nina is always supporting Reya and apart from Reya telling the reader that she cares for Nina, there is no evidence of reciprocity. In fact, in one scene, Reya states that she is all alone, completely forgetting about poor Nina languishing somewhere in the castle dungeons. And let me just say that the relationship between Nina and Reya does not give off platonic vibes. There were so many moments where it felt like the author was hinting at a sapphic romance – but nothing came of it. It just frustrated me and I wish the author had just made things clearer on this front.
There is also a lack of attention to detail that left me feeling so frustrated. Something would be introduced and then quickly forgotten about, leaving tons of loose ends. For example, (Click to reveal spoiler) what happened to the book Reya was carrying from her father? How did she forget she had an UNCLE?! What did the actual training to unlock her abilities consist of? What does Ancient Kasmiri look like? Why was Reya teaching Nina to read English of all languages? These were just some of the questions that came to mind and I never got the answer to any of them.
This post has turned out to be a huge rant. Part of me feels bad. I want to uplift OwnVoice authors and novels. But I also need to stay true to myself. This novel was extremely problematic and needs to go back to the drawing board. I commend the author for writing a book at such a young age and making it this far in her publishing journey. However, this novel, while having a ton of potential, is not ready for publication in its current state.
And to the publishers and editors out there who did not do their due diligence to ensure that this novel was a suitable representation of Indian culture? DO BETTER.