Once upon a time, your average novel fell into a specific category. A mystery featured a detective of some sort solving a crime, either in the past or the present. A western starred cowboys and maybe a few Indians shooting up some place with a name like Tombstone or Dry Gulch. As for the various forms of the undead, they were one and all relegated to the horror section of the local bookstore or library.
In modern times, however, the genre lines have become increasingly blurred. Vampires and werewolves frolic in teen romances. Hard-nosed private eyes solve cases involving aliens and robots in the 23rd century. And for young steampunk fans, the Victorian age is far more technologically savvy and magical in the stories of today than it ever was in the historical fiction of their parents.
German writer Kai Meyer pushes the fictional boundaries even further with his novel “Arcadia Awakens” (first in a projected trilogy), a book that somehow manages to blend the forbidden love theme of “Romeo and Juliet” and some pseudo-Greek mythology into a mildly suspenseful thriller of two shape-shifting Mafia families in Sicily. Unfortunately, he also adds an unhealthy collection of other ingredients that will be hard to stomach for many Christian readers.
Meyer’s twisted tale begins with the arrival of Rosa in Italy from the United States, where she has been living since early childhood. At 17 she is waif-like with her small figure and frequently tousled blond hair, but her actions within the first few pages reveal a hardness of character that belie her innocent appearance. Foul-mouthed, obnoxious, and fond of petty thievery, Rosa is quickly presented as a girl without a strong moral compass. However, as she lies to and/or offends the various people she encounters on her journey to her ancestral home, the reader still manages to feel sorry for her, sensing that behind the tough facade is a hurting child who has experienced very little love and happiness.
In direct contrast to Rosa’s boorish persona, the image that Alessandro, Rosa’s fellow passenger, offers to the world is one of practiced politeness and composed self-assurance. Handsome with slightly aristocratic features, Alessandro is likable but also mysterious. In other words, he is one of the stereotypical male leads that has quickened young female hearts throughout literature for centuries. Violent at certain times but tender at others, passionate for justice and loyal to the point of death toward those he loves, powerful yet beset by dangerous and destructive circumstances, readers see aspects of his personality reflected in Edward of the Twilight saga, Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice,” and in countless romantic heroes of Asian dramas.
Shortly after arriving in Sicily, Rosa soon discovers that this good-looking stranger she encountered on the plane is actually the heir apparent of the Carnevare family, bitter rivals to her own Alcantara clan. Despite, or perhaps partially because of, this, Rosa begins to feel drawn to him. The feeling is mutual, but the relationship builds at a much slower and more normal pace than that of the Shakespearean prototype, more of a friendship at first than a full-blown romance. As might be expected, any fraternization with the enemy is viewed with extreme displeasure by Rosa’s and Alessandro’s clans, and most especially by Rosa’s aunt Florinda. Yet no matter what obstacles are placed in their way, Rosa and Alessandro, either by design or coincidence, frequently find themselves together.
Being together is dangerous, though, especially since the two are so good at discovering secrets that their families would prefer remain buried forever, such as who is actually responsible for Alessandro’s mother’s death. Adding to their problems is the fact that Alessandro is in a power struggle for the leadership of his clan, and true to the tradition of mafia families, some of his closest relatives feel the best way to stop Alessandro’s rise to leadership is to kill him. To further complicate matters, an Italian task force against organized crime manages to get to Rosa while she is on the mainland and secretly starts putting pressure on her to help them bring down the clans.
Underlying all of this deceit is a deeper secret that the clans share and are determined to keep from the public: They are shape-shifters. And while it would seem that it would be a given that the Alcantaras, who shift into giant serpents, and the Carnevares, who transform into predatory felines, would be natural enemies, some disturbing underwater statues may prove otherwise.
Although well-crafted with a unique storyline, Meyer’s book clashes with the Christian worldview in several areas. The book is pervaded by such elements as strong language, atheism, overt sexuality, drug use, homosexuality, and hints of a twisted sensuality between two animal species, along with murder, abortion, thievery, and persistent lying. While the author’s mix of genres may be an admirable undertaking, Christian readers may want to avoid this book due to the presence of these elements.
John E. Roper, in addition to his role as a missionary/pastor/teacher in Africa, has written for USA Today, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Oklahoman, the US Review of Books, and more.
Image copyright Balzer & Bray. Review copy purchased from the reviewer’s local bookstore.