Arcadia Awakens | Arcadia #1 | 451 pages | ISBN 9780062006066 | Balzer + Bray, 2012 | 2.5 out of 5 Points
“To New Yorker Rosa Alcantara, the exotic world of Sicily, with its network of Mafia families and its reputation for murder and intrigue, is just that—exotic, and wholly unknown. But when tragedy strikes, she must travel there, to her family’s ancestral home, where her sister and aunt have built their lives and where centuries of family secrets await her.
Once there, Rosa wastes no time falling head over heels for Alessandro Carnevare, the son of a Sicilian Mafia family, whose handsome looks and savage grace both intrigue and unsettle her. But their families are sworn enemies, and her aunt and sister believe Alessandro is only using Rosa to infiltrate the Alcantara clan. And when Rosa encounters a tiger one night—a tiger with very familiar eyes—she can no longer deny that neither the Carnevares nor the Alcantaras are what they seem.
Ancient myths brought to life in the Sicilian countryside, dangerous beasts roaming the hills, and a long history of familial bloodlust prove to Rosa that she can’t trust anyone—not even her own family. Torn between loyalty to her aunt and love for her family’s mortal enemy, Rosa must make the hardest decision of her life: stay in Sicily with her new love . . . or run as far and as fast as she can.”
When I first heard about this book I was really excited. The cover is awesome and the Italian setting intrigued me, it’s pretty unusual for YA to be set anywhere that isn’t America or Britain. I was so excited in fact that I got my copy signed by the author (who is super nice by the way, I have nothing against him and would like to meet him again some time). I just though I’d love this book but then I didn’t. I really didn’t. It’s not really a bad book. Sometimes I dislike a book and it’s very easy to pinpoint the reasons and then I write a review explaining why wrapped up with a neat little bow. “Arcadia Awakens” isn’t like that. I didn’t like it but my dislike for it is more of a feeling than something I can really put in words. The book made me uncomfortable and even though I finished it, I didn’t feel good afterwards. I’ll try and explain.
THE SHADOWS UNDER MY EYES ARE AS DARK AS MY SOUL
I had massive problems with Rosa, the protagonist. She’s Italian-American living in New York City and she’s… quite something. She has that jaded NYC aura, you know, dark shadows under her eyes and she’s only ever wearing black. She’s grumpy and unfriendly and very cynical, so much so that I thought it was ridiculously unrealistic. Rosa steals stuff for fun just because she can and when someone’s nice to her she usually responds with a frown and some snarky comment. Right in the beginning she steals a couple of chocolate bars from a vendor as some kind of revenge because he dared to be nice to her. Rosa is the freaking epitome of “not like other girls”. She’s dark and moody and for some reason that makes her think she’s cool and different. I think this quote from one of the very first pages illustrates my problem with Rosa very nicely:
Because, you know, if she staples an attacker he has to stop attacking her to remove the staples thus giving her a chance to escape. She’s edgy like that, you see, she’s so unique she even thinks differently than other girls. It was seriously stressful to read Rosa’s thoughts and her explanations for why she does some stuff oh so differently. Rosa is meant to be this unique cool girl character but to be honest I found her unbearable. She’s mean for no reason and always grumpy. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a pettier main character. I’m all for anti-heros and unusual female protagonists in YA fiction but if your main character is seriously just some bitchy teenage girl who takes herself way too seriously and thinks she’s cool for wearing all black and stealing stuff, I’m going to be annoyed with her. I was super annoyed with Rosa after only just one short chapter.
Alessandro isn’t that much better. The love story was… there? I guess? It’s your same old forbidden love shtick warmed up once more and tasting mushy like when you reheat potatoes in a microwave. See, it’s not the forbidden love thing itself that bored me here. Just like potatoes forbidden love is a classic that goes with everything. But you can either turn your potatoes into a tasty unique dish… or you can cook them and reheat them in the microwave until they turn to mush which is what happened here. The love story is mush. Rosa falls for Alessandro because he’s really hot and then she literally can’t keep her hands off him but oh no! He belongs to the Carnevare family (by the way, what an uninspired name choice. Carnevare sounds a lot like carnivoro, the Italian for carnivore. Now guess what kind of shape-shifters his family are…), her family’s sworn enemies! Yes, we’ve read this before. Romeo and Juliet and all that jazz, their love (or physical attraction more like) is way stronger than those old Sicilian mafia power struggles, they’re just meant to be! Okay.
OH YEAH, PEOPLE DIED
Kai Meyer’s writing is beautiful though. His descriptions of Sicily are vibrant and on point. I could basically smell the sea water, that’s how pretty and well done they were. Meyer really goes to town with this setting which I actually really liked. I love it when authors weave their book’s setting into the story instead of just using it as a backdrop. I also thought the mafia stuff was quite well done, especially regarding the context of the setting and Sicily’s history. If “Arcadia Awakens” had been a contemporary YA drama about two teenagers from rivaling mafia families falling in love with more focus on how the Sicilian mafia actually works I would probably have rated the book higher. But it’s a paranormal and the fantasy story killed it for me (just like Meyer killed all of these characters but more on that later).
There’s a lot of Greek Mythology in this book and I honestly don’t get it. I mean, I know Roman and Greek Mythology are practically the same thing and the Greek settled in Sicily until the fifth century so it’s not like there are no contact points between Sicily and Greek Mythology but why not set the book in Greece right away then? It’s also a Mediterranean setting and even though the Greek mafia isn’t as well-known as the Italian one it definitely exists. Sicily is sometimes identified to be mythical Arcadia but it’s still Greek mythology and the Greek haven’t lived in Sicily for over 1500 years. It’s just a weird choice, I think. Especially since the real Arcadia is in Greece anyway, it’s a place that exists. I’m not really sure what my point is here since it’s not like this doesn’t make any sense. Meyer researched Greek mythology well and his Sicilian setting is stunning. It’s just the execution that’s kind of weird and clunky and leaves a lot of questions.
I’m also a bit miffed that this book is a whooping 450 pages long and the story is so very thin. Nothing much happens. Rosa arrives in Sicily, realises her family is in the mafia and that Alessandro’s family are their arch enemies, falls in love with him and discovers some stuff about herself she had no idea about. The paranormal aspect is introduced and explained pretty early on and then it’s basically just loads of violence. There is so much death here, seriously. I usually don’t mind violence in my fiction, not even in YA fiction, but “Arcadia Awakens” is a weird one.
The violence is gory and described in detail, loads of characters die and it’s kind of trivialised. Rosa watches people get killed in the most gruesome ways (like, getting their brains shot out or getting ripped apart by actual lions) but it barely even leaves an impression on her. People die, people get hurt, there’s blood and gore but it’s presented like it’s nothing and I honestly hated it. I really don’t think teens need to be coddled and kept away from every mention of violence ever but I also don’t think a Young adult novel needs to trivialise violence and killing like this, not even if it’s about the Sicilian mafia. Write about death, YA writers, but please also write about the consequences of death. Thanks in advance.
Meyer also kills off his two lesbian characters which upset me quite a bit. Like three fourths of this book’s characters die and the lesbians are among those but the way it was done was super off-putting. First Meyer pulls this lesbian couple out of his hat like a white rabbit so his readers can gasp in shock about how she’s a lesbian, omg? And then he realises he only needed the queer characters for that stunningly cheap plot twist and has them killed off in the most gruesome ways.
Look, queer girls get killed in fiction left and right. There aren’t many lesbian or bi female characters in Young Adult fiction anyway and killing the few that are there is just not okay. You’re basically telling young queer women that they’re only there to get used as plot twists and die horribly whilst straight girls get to be heroines, get the hot love interest to fall in love with them and, of course, survive the story. That’s a problem. It happens so often that I refuse to put this under a spoiler because man, you should know about it before you read this book, especially if you’re lgbtq and can’t stand to watch lgbtq girls dying in your fiction anymore. What happens to these girls in this book might very well upset some lgbtq readers quite badly so please beware.
LOVE IN THE TIME OF MAFIA WARS
I’ve mentioned it earlier but I also didn’t like how Rosa and Alessandro’s “love” was so sexual. I don’t mind sex in Young Adult fiction at all, it’s a normal part of teen life after all, but Rosa and Alessandro’s attraction to each other is mostly physical and that’s not love, really. Rosa has sex dreams about Alessandro and she keeps mentioning his good looks and how she’s attracted to him but there’s really no fondness in that relationship, no emotions really. I’m not a big fan of portraying sexual attraction as love. It can be a part of loving someone but it’s not always love. I also have to say I didn’t like Meyer’s depiction of sexual assault either but I can’t say too much about that because it would be a bit of a spoiler. But I didn’t think it was well done or well thought out even, it was used as another shocker just like the “oh my god, lesbians!” part was. Meyer just doesn’t deal with sensitive topics very well in this book.
In the end “Arcadia Awakens” gets 2 points from me for a very interesting concept, a beautifully written Sicilian setting and his pretty writing style. I’m adding another half point because there were interesting bits and pieces here and there regarding the story and Rosa’s character but they weren’t explored enough. “Arcadia Awakens” had all the makings of a great unique YA novel but fell flat for me after only a few chapters. I think Meyer might have put a bit too much work into his characters and the setting and too little into his actual plot. The love story doesn’t work either because it relies too heavily on sexual attraction and the forbidden love trope but lacks any emotional depth. I also wasn’t a fan of all the trivialised violence and the insensitive approach to topics like sexual abuse and queer representation.
I don’t really regret giving the “Arcadia” trilogy a try at all but I won’t be picking up book two in the series. If you still can’t get enough of Twilight-esque paranormal love stories you might wanna give “Arcadia Awakens” a try or if you like mafia stories and don’t mind any of the things I’ve talked about above. If you do mind but are still interested in Kai Meyer as an author you might want to check out “The Water Mirror“, a truly magical YA book set in Venice that I love quite a lot. Enjoy!
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- “HERE THEY LIE” BY D.K. BURROW - May 28, 2017
- “TRIAL BY FIRE” BY JOSEPHINE ANGELINI - May 21, 2017
- “MEMORY” BY CHRISTOPH MARZI - May 14, 2017
- “JUST DREAMING” BY KERSTIN GIER - May 7, 2017
- MARIE ANTOINETTE’S CONVERSE – ON HISTORICAL ACCURACY - May 2, 2017
- “WISH ME DEAD” BY HELEN GRANT - April 30, 2017