Book Review: Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky


Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Published: 23rd May 2011

Format: Hardback

Genre: Dystopian, YA

Recommended Reading Age: 16+

Rating: 7


‘Maddie lives in a world where everything is done on the computer. Whether it’s to go to school or on a date, people don’t venture out of their home. There’s really no need. For the most part, Maddie’s okay with the solitary, digital life—until she meets Justin. Justin likes being with people. He enjoys the physical closeness of face-to-face interactions. People aren’t meant to be alone, he tells her. 

Suddenly, Maddie feels something awakening inside her—a feeling that maybe there is a different, better way to live. But with society and her parents telling her otherwise, Maddie is going to have to learn to stand up for herself if she wants to change the path her life is taking.’

Awaken turned out to be a very enjoyable read. I have to admit that I love the cover. The colours are gorgeous and it just reminds me of an old-fashioned painting, and makes such a refreshing change from the usual YA covers. It’s a little unexpected for a dystopian novel, and I think that fits. 

What I found particularly well done about Awaken was the world building, in that I could see the society Kacvinsky has created actually happening. In many ways, you could argue that it already is happening. In a world where so much is already done by computers, where more and more people connect and meet online, it’s not too much of a leap to imagine a future that echos Maddie’s world.

Maddie, the main protagonist, I really liked – she was extremely intelligent and confident, with her own opinions and thoughts on the digital lifestyle her own father has created long before any guy comes along and shows her otherwise. She has guts – hacking into her father’s system at 15 as part of a rebellion – but has lost her spirit dealing with the fallout from her betrayal. Awaken is more about Maddie truly understanding the society she lives in, understanding herself and choosing her own future, rather than actively fighting any oppressive system and I enjoyed reading about  female character who took action for herself.

Justin I didn’t particularly like as a romantic interest, though his character was a compelling one. He is passionate about his views, too passionate, as he comes across as preachy, aloof and distant for the majority of the book. Almost an extremist, I enjoyed watching his character become slightly more balanced and more understanding of people as he grew closer to Maddie, I just didn’t feel a connection between them, beyond a brief attraction. Not that this is a bad thing – I wish more books explored different types of relationships and not just the typical soul-mates, ‘epic’ romance I have come to expect from YA, but so far the author seems to be taking Justin and Maddie down the traditional romance route – and it’s once the inevitable romance happens that Awaken started to fall down for me.

Justin’s character develops the irritating trait of many a male hero, deciding that Maddie is far too important to risk and wants to keep her on the sidelines, whereas previously he was encouraging her, almost pushing her, to become actively involved in a rebellion. Maddie herself, looses so much of her personality, and quickly becoming tiresome. Her whole world revolves around Justin – never an attractive quality in a female protagonist.

Interestingly Kacvinsky addresses this mentality (a sadly recurring theme and major issue in YA fiction), in the book.

“Of course you should care. but you shouldn’t need him. You need to feel complete first, with living in your own skin. Maybe take some time to get to know who you are and what you want to do before you worry too much about Justin.” ~page 273

In some ways Maddie’s infatuation with Justin makes perfect sense – he’s the first boy she’s ever really spent time with, let alone crushed on. Her depressive state whenever he leaves, her lack of concern about anything or anyone else other than Justin, while annoying, is, I feel, a part of her character growth. Hopefully in the following book we’ll see Maddie come into her own and really understand just what Justin’s mother is trying to say here.

Maddie’s parents are also a particularly interesting couple and I hope we get to explore their history and motives some more in Middle Ground (book two). For me, it doesn’t really seem like digital school is that much of a threat (apart from the odd sinister moment), so why exactly is Justin so hell-bent on destroying it? Kacvinsky paints a repressed society, but not one that is necessarily without choice. Many people seem to be living freely how they choose, out in the open, without fear of reprisals and the tension and the danger of the world Maddie finds herself in is undermined by the realisation that, in reality, no one seems to care, that these pockets of society exist and I wonder whether all this is about to change.

At times Awaken is a little repetitive and we are bashed over the head again and again at just how wrong this digital life has become, a shame, since Kacvinksy should have trusted her plot, characters and atmosphere to be enough. But, the narrative in Awaken is very vivid and quite beautiful in places, you really feel claustrophobic and stifled in Maddie’s world, and moments where she experiences walking on wooden floorboards, or sees bonfire for the first time, were incredibly well done. Though the society Kacvinsky has created is all too easy to imagine, the details about how it all came about, particularly in so short a time, are sketchy at best and more background information was needed, in place of, what felt to me, a rather forced, romance.

Not perfect by any means, and the fact that it slows down towards the end, giving the impression that this book is really just setting the groundwork for a dystopian series, may put some people of, but I really enjoyed  Awaken. It’s quieter nature reminded me of Matched by Ally Condie despite being vastly different books and I’m hooked enough to want to know what happens next.


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