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REVIEW: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

October 24, 2017

Dear Caraval Master Legend,

I’m sorry I got your name wrong in those other letters. I hope that’s not why you haven’t come to Trisda. My little sister’s birthday wasn’t the only reason I’ve wanted you to bring your amazing Caraval players here, I’d love to see them too.

Most Hopefully, Scarlett, from the Conquered Isle of Trisda

Caraval is the story of two sisters, lost in the mysterious world of Caraval, a once-in-a-lifetime magical event where one lucky participant will walk away with a precious Wish. Scarlett, the elder sister, has been writing to the Caraval players for seven years, and only receives an invitation after she writes that she is getting married, and therefore cannot go. Her sister, Donatella (or Tella, for short) is a rebel, who will stop at nothing to escape the little island where the sisters live and their abusive father, who is the governor.

But when the pair arrive at Caraval, they soon find themselves separated, and what seemed like the experience of a lifetime soon begins to feel like a twisted game of life and death.

 

 

 

Did you like The Night Circus? If so, you might well be drawn to Caraval. It’s immediately obvious that Caraval is a spiritual successor, of sorts, to The Night Circus – like its predecessor, Caraval features a mysterious, immersive carnival where magic really can happen if the right price is paid. Aesthetically speaking the two books are also quite similar. Settings-wise they both take place around the end of the 19th Century (although Caraval is set in an imaginative and expansive fantasy universe) and both settings are steeped in black and white imagery, with the occassional dramatic splash of red.

But here’s where the books differ: The Night Circus showed us the story of how the titular event came to be. We saw the inner workings of the magic tricks, and the personal feelings of the magicians who create them. Caraval, however, is told from the perspective of an outsider, Scarlett Dragna. It makes for compelling reading – I love being shown a world as it might look through my own eyes.

So yes, Caraval is a great read for anyone who felt enchanted by the magic of The Night  Circus, and never wanted it to end. But I have to say (and maybe this is an unfair comparison) that Caraval is nowhere near as good. It’s not bad! There were parts of it that I really enjoyed. If I’d started reading with my expectations a little lower, I might have fallen totally head over heels with this book. As it was, I read it, enjoyed, it, but probably won’t remember it.

So, moving on. Scarlett is a wonderful protagonist. Her desire to experience a real adventure is at odds with the fear that she has learned as a survivor of abuse, and this provides the crux of her dilemma during the story. Does she risk missing her wedding to stay another day at Caraval? Does she pursue her sister, or play it safe? The book is full of moments where Scarlett is forced to choose between the safe option and the fun option, which is great! The trouble is, there are one too many moments when it turns out that the safe option would have been a better choice. As a consequence, we never really see Scarlett change because of her experiences. At the end of the book, she’s still the same person she was at the beginning – her self-sacrificial choices made in Caraval are almost identical to the ones she was forced to make while trying to protect Tella from her father. Unfortunately, this puts rather a damper on things in Caraval, which often seem like very cruel pranks rather than the deep character testing moments they are set up to be.

I’m also not impressed with the romantic lead. His name is Julian, and we first meet him while he’s making out with the protagonist’s sister. Yikes. Later he literally kidnaps Scarlett, almost lets her drown, and then abandons her at their very first trial in Caraval. He also consistently calls her by the wrong name, which for some reason Scarlett finds endearing. His partnership with Scarlett seems very forced – the romance, at least is more believable, and is one of the standout parts of the book.

There are a lot of moments where Scarlett is gently manouvered through the plot by other characters. She rarely makes choices of her own, and when she does, they go horribly wrong. Again, this makes it seem as though Caraval is less of a fun adventure and more of a series of really awful things happening to someone who really deserves a break.

SPOILERS AHEAD

One of the worst examples for me was when Scarlett follows what she expected to be an important clue only to find that it leads straight to her fiance, who turns out not to be the wonderful kind man she expected, and her father lying in wait. No real explanation is ever given for why these two managed to enter Caraval 3 days after the time limit to get there, or why they started running a haberdashery store when they arrived. I half expected it to be some kind of illusion. But no, they’re really there, and worse, they were explicitly invited.

What kind of sadistic puppetmaster would do such a thing?! Alright, at this point we’ve been informed that Caraval Master Legend is a bit of a jerk, but I really think there’s a limit. It turns out that Tella is the mastermind behind all of Scarlett’s sufferings, and it was all in aid of tricking their father into thinking they were dead (what) so that he wouldn’t follow them (as if he’d have had any idea where they’d gone if Tella hadn’t explicitly told him) with the bonus that it would prove that Scarlett loved Tella better than anyone else. Let me run that by you again. Scarlett’s own sister had her battle through all of her worst nightmares, including nearly being raped, watching the man she loves die, and watching Tella herself plummet from a balcony to her death to prove that Scarlett loves her sister enough to bring her back to life.
That’s not a fun adventure. That’s not a character defining journey. That’s gaslighting.

Gosh, this turned out a lot more angry than I really meant to be. The truth is, I really enjoyed Caraval. Julian quickly went from being one of those awful YA love interests who’s only interesting because the protagonist says he is to being a really fascinating, conflicted character. I really wish there’d been more details on the Caraval itself, because what we got was great! The little details about all the different wares people can buy, the decorations, the fascinating night and day mechanics of the setting – all these things were perfect. Scarlett and Donatella are both actually very good characters and perfect foils for one another. Unfortunately, all the best things about this book are spoiled a little by the ending, which feels very rushed and incredibly anticlimatic.

Quietly, I’m hoping that the hype from Caraval will let Stephanie Garber write the sequel hinted at by the epilogue. Without the problematic plot elements, and with the benefit of knowledge about the workings of the Caraval itself, we might actually get the wonderful, magical adventure that I so wanted Caraval to be.