Series: Caraval #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 31st, 2017
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy
Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.
Caraval could’ve made for an outstanding read, for the general storyline creates tension and the setting is enchanting. But the characters are neither memorable nor fleshed out and therefore cannot pull their weight. Considering how Garber throws around with colours in her prose, the characters remain astonishingly colourless.
Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world.
Let’s commence with my strongest point of critique. This set of characters is unbelievably bland. I did like and feel for Scarlett, but she isn’t anything I haven’t seen before. She was relatable to me because of her devotion to her little sister’s protection and wellbeing. Her desperation during the disappearance of her sister was palpable. But loyalty and a protector’s instinct are not enough to make a strong heroine. On the contrary, it’s a fine line between a good-hearted female lead and a Mary Sue. I was glad to see a more selfish side simmer through later in the story, for it makes her more realistic. Scarlett – loyal, protective, a little selfish, but at times so naive – is not able to carry this story on her shoulders, though. Her sister Tella is portrayed as Scarlett’s fierce, impulsive counterpart, but other than that, I can tell you little about her personality, as she’s absent for a majority of the book. Legend is an interesting antagonist because he’s omni-present without ever revealing himself. Further, he seems to entertain a morally grey line of action, but there’s little substance to him as well. I assume Garber tried to employ the “bad boy image” with Julian, and though I’d be an easy target for this characterization, he couldn’t ensnare me. He keeps an air of mystery, which I loved, but again, I cannot paint a clear picture of who Julian is besides his motives. The lack of depth is a disease that has befallen most – if not all – of the characters in this book.
I enjoyed Caraval generally speaking, though it is slow at times in spite of the increase of tension. I was surprised, though, by how heavily the romance weighed in this book, though there is one redeeming scene at the end. The shadow cast by the romance and magic show at Caraval sometimes completely swallowed Scarlett’s main goal of finding her sister. Briefly, I was worried about a possible love triangle, but it is not a storyline Garber pursued. To my amazement, I did like the chemistry between Scarlett and Julian, even though they were not memorable as individuals and their romance was every YA trope ever. The plot’s climax was intense. It made me want to claw my eyes out. And because the story took place at a magic show, things got very confusing – both for Scarlett and for me. This was one of the few precious moments I felt her emotions transfer to me, which is what creative writing should be all about.
Garber paints a glittery, enchanting setting with an amazing amount of detail, loosely inspired by Italian and Spanish culture. Some have complained about the lack of originality, but since I haven’t read The Night Circus, which it is often compared to, I’ll have to sit this discussion out. What I missed with regard to the magic system was a tad more explanations as to how the magic on the Isla de los Sueños works. And I wonder why Scarlett’s magical ability is hinted at but never, not with a single word, addressed in the book? That seems incredibly weird for a fantasy. Themes such as domestic violence and arranged marriages are also woven into the storyline, but not well executed. Scarlett’s and Tella’s father is quickly villainised, and I don’t find it convincing that a man who had shown no violent streak prior to his wife’s disappearance should suddenly have sadistic fits of rage – a point at which we from Every Word A Doorway would like to give a trigger warning for readers who’ve suffered domestic abuse. You’d have to give me a better explanation for such a psychopathic transformation of personality. And though this is a fantasy novel, I expect a certain amount of accuracy. To my knowledge, there’s no substance that will render a human unconscious for more two days.
Last but not least, let me address the writing. Garber possesses the skill to write beautifully, but she tried too hard to make the writing poetic and metaphorical. The result is an overdose of weird metaphors and descriptive terms, mostly the use of colours. I mean, what am I supposed to imagine when I read “the colour of late-night laughter“? Late-night? Marine blue? Grey? Black? Also, since when does laughter have a colour? The sticky descriptions and bad similes in this book for the sake of flowery prose dampened my enjoyment of her writing.
All in all, Caraval could’ve been a solid debut in spite of its bumps, yet the hype created expectations which the book could not meet. It is a gripping read but the content is mediocre. On a superficial level, the book offers an entertaining read in a glittering fantasy world, though it should be noted that the romance is quite predominant. On a deeper level, the characterization is lacking, the prose too purple, and several others things, such as the villainised father figure and the unexplained magical elements, just irked me.