I’ve been in the mood for a light, fun read recently, and since I’d heard so many wonderful things about Stephanie Garber’s debut novel, Caraval, I decided to finally give it a try. And it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. And not in the best way. (Fair warning: this is my longest book review ever. I had a lot of thoughts, and they couldn’t be controlled. So you might want to grab yourself a cup of tea before settling in to read this.)
(From Goodreads) Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world . . .
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.
I’ll start with the things I liked about this book. I enjoyed having a main character that was flawed. Scarlett makes mistakes (often stupid ones) and doesn’t always know what to do. It’s something I always like seeing, especially in young adult fantasy, because too often we get protagonists who are perfect. They don’t mess things up, things happen to them that they deal with. And while things definitely happen to Scarlett that are out of her control, she reacts like a human. Which I really appreciated. I also really liked that none of the other characters were really what they seemed. That was a fun twist, and made for a more interesting ending.
The Caraval game itself was really fun. I enjoyed the element of magic, and how the game worked. It was a mystery, but it was also so fast-paced that things move forward before the characters have a chance to get a handle on what’s happening. I like that the currency of the game is secrets, which made for a few more unexpected twists (and opportunities for Scarlett to do dumb things). The magic itself was mysterious – we never really find out how it works – which actually worked in this story, especially since the protagonist is an outsider. She’s trying to win the game, and she isn’t given time to figure out or question the magic.
What I didn’t like: the writing. At all. In other reviews, I’ve talked about how I dislike overly floral writing. This was like that. On crack. The descriptors often made no sense at all. For example, at one point, Scarlett puts on a dress that is “a combination of blazing creams and burning pinks”. I’m sorry, but no matter how vibrant a cream colored thing is, it’s still cream colored, and describing it as “blazing” doesn’t make sense. (It was also supposed to resemble a “Hot Summer sunset”, so why not make it orange?) Things like “periwinkle curiosity” and “it smelled of laughter and boasts” just made me roll my eyes. What do those things even mean? I get that the author was trying to be lyrical, but it still has to make sense. Instead of being awed by the detailed imagery (and actually paying attention to the story), I was wondering what the hell laughter smells like (or if Scarlett maybe had synesthesia – did I miss that part?). The pages are filled (overly so) with bizarre metaphors that were completely distracting, and continually pulled me out of the story as I tried to actually imagine what the author meant to portray. At times, it felt like she just strung appealing words together. From a distance, they might look pretty and colorful, but up close it was kind of a meaningless mess.
Now, I’m totally aware that I’m
a bit of a picky reader when it comes to writing. And, based on the many great reviews, I’m sure there aren’t many readers who are too bothered by this. But it completely prevented me from enjoying this book. I will admit that I want to find out what happens next in the story, though I don’t plan on picking up book two.
Warning: very minor spoilers in the remainder of the review. Read at your own risk, or skip down to where it says ‘Rating’.
I also didn’t particularly like how this book handles abuse. I went into Caraval thinking it would be a fun, magical game with some dark twists thrown in. And, in some ways, I did get that. But much of the story also centers on mental, emotional, and physical abuse. Scarlett and Tella’s father is extremely abusive, to the point where he is literally his daughters’ worst fear. Scarlett is ready to marry a man she’s never met just to get away from him. The abuse is a theme throughout the story, and a way in which Scarlett’s father controls her. There is also a scene that comes pretty close to sexual abuse, which, at that point, was a bit overkill for me. I really just wanted the story to move forward. But the worst example, in my opinion, is how Caraval treats suicide. It was just part of the game, and really not taken nearly as seriously as it should have been. I understand that there is a place for abuse in literature, and I’ve seen it done well in ways where it makes a lasting impact and makes the reader think more deeply about the impact of different forms of abuse. Caraval didn’t do that for me. I felt the book could have easily been written successfully without that element, and I think it would have made for a much more magical read.
Finally, I didn’t like that the two female characters are constantly controlled and influenced by men, and that, while they do find strength, they can’t do it on their own, they need male characters to help them; Scarlett does start to believe in herself and fight back, but only after she falls in love, and has the support of her love interest. Before this, she’s relying on her fiancé, a man whose name she doesn’t even know and is mysteriously connected to her father, to save her instead of making any attempts to save herself. I will give Tella credit for taking that initiative, but literally everyone who makes her plan even remotely possible is male. While I was reading the ending, it did feel like it was a bit of a happy ending, giving Scarlett and Tella their freedom, I realized afterwards that it wasn’t, really. After Caraval ends, the sisters are left with pretty much nothing, save for the men who have promised to protect them. Sure, it’s romantic, but it’s also really impractical. Regardless of how nice the male characters are, they’re still preventing the female characters from gaining independence. Scarlett and Tella can’t exactly leave, because they have no money, no place to go, and no power (magical or otherwise) or authority of their own. They’re still stuck. Albeit with kinder men. Perhaps it’s all the feminist literature I’ve been reading (blame Virginia Woolf), but I was pretty disappointed in this book.
I did initially give Caraval three stars (on Goodreads), but after sleeping on it (and thinking a lot more about the things I didn’t like), I decided that was a bit generous considering how much I actually enjoyed the book. Had the writing made more sense and the story been more about the magic, less about abuse, and included a little more girl power, this could have been a three- or four-star book for me, but now those things are all I can think about.
I’m very curious to see what all of you think of this book, since it’s been getting so many rave reviews! If you’ve read it, please share your thoughts in the comments! (Don’t be afraid to share if you loved it – I’m interested to see what your take is on the elements I didn’t like.)
And, if you’re interested in reading Caraval, you can order your copy here. (Though I would recommend checking it out from the library. Just in case your reading experience mirrors mine.)
To get the audiobook free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose Caraval as one of your two free books (which you get to keep even if you cancel).