Series: Caraval #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 31st 2017
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Buy on Amazon
It’s always so disappointing when one of your most anticipated reads doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Unfortunately, this was the case for me with Stephanie Garber’s Caraval. Caraval is a book that was instantly on my radar as soon as I started seeing people comparing it to Erin Morganstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my all-time favorite books. Based on that comparison and so many glowing reviews from my fellow bloggers, I fully expected Caraval to be a 5 star read for me and ended up so disappointed that it didn’t come close to that. That’s not to say I didn’t like the novel, because I really did. I just didn’t love it like I had expected and hoped to.
Caraval tells the story of two sisters, Scarlett and Tella, who live on a tiny island with their overbearing father. Ever since their mother passed away, their father has become cruel and abusive to his children and practically holds them both prisoner, never allowing them to leave the island. Since she was a child, Scarlett has dreamed of attending Caraval, a once-a-year magical mystery and scavenger hunt of sorts, the winner of which is granted one wish. When her father arranges for her to be married to a man she has never met, Scarlett assumes that her dream of attending Caraval is dead once and for all, until her long-awaited invitation arrives. Thanks to an elaborate scheme concocted by her sister Tella, and with the help of a sexy sailor named Julian, Scarlett and Tella run away for a few days so that Scarlett can finally experience the magic of Caraval before settling into this married life her father has chosen for her. The catch? Her father has scheduled the wedding date so close to when Caraval takes places that it’s going to be a race against the clock to sail to Caraval, participate in the events, and then sail back home. Can they make it back in time? And is experiencing Caraval really worth possibly exciting the wrath of their abusive father?
I’d have to say my favorite part about this novel was the world building itself once the girls actually make it to Caraval. I loved the idea of the exotic faraway setting and the hints of magic that were everywhere. Garber does a beautiful job of setting the stage for this great adventure and infusing everything with a touch of whimsy. One of my favorite parts was when Scarlett and Julian first enter Caraval and are greeted by a young woman riding a unicycle, immediately invoking a carnival-esque atmosphere. Another whimsical touch I enjoyed was the outfit Scarlett was given to wear soon after her arrival. At first glance, it looked like little more than a potato sack, but then it magically transformed into whatever attire the powers that be at Caraval decided Scarlett needed at any given moment, whether it was a gorgeous and daring evening gown or a sexy negligee. How handy would an outfit like that be?!
I thought the whole concept for the event itself was brilliant too. I mean, seriously? A magical game of illusion and trickery that will seem so real that you actually have to sign a contract acknowledging that you fully understand it’s all just a game before they will even let you play? How fascinating is that? I also loved that the game was only played at night. The participants played only once the sun went down and had to be back in their rooms before the sun came back up the next morning. This added an extra layer of mystique to the already magical atmosphere.
I also liked the relationship between the two sisters, Scarlett and Tella. Since their mother died, Scarlett has taken on the role of protector when it comes to her younger sister, Tella, and sometimes she has her hands full because Tella is much more free-spirited and rebellious than she is. It is Tella’s love of taking risks that makes Scarlett’s dream of attending Caraval possible, and once they get there and Tella is “kidnapped” as part of the game, Scarlett is desperate to find her sister to make sure she’s safe. That sisterly bond is beautiful – it’s clear either would do absolutely anything for the other.
Okay, so I loved the world of Caraval, I liked the overall premise of the game, and I enjoyed the sisterly bond between Scarlett and Tella. So where did Caraval not measure up for me?
Characters that weren’t well developed or likeable. While I felt tremendous sympathy for these two girls because their father was such a cruel beast, I just didn’t particularly like them all that much. They kind of fell flat. Even though I loved the bond between Scarlett and Tella, I got so tired of listening to Scarlett constantly whine about needing to find her. I mean, seriously, she was told by two employees as soon as she entered Caraval AND had to sign a contract stating she was fully aware this was all a game, and she still kept whining about needing to get to her sister like she was truly in mortal danger. I just found that incredibly frustrating.
I did like Tella more than Scarlett because I did enjoy her sense of rebelliousness, but she disappears for 90% of the book, so yeah, it didn’t really matter if I liked her or not.
I couldn’t stand their father of course because he was a monster, but at the same time, I didn’t understand why he became such a monster. It’s stated in the novel that before his wife died, he was a much kinder man. So the love of his life dies and he chooses to grieve for her by abusing their children? I just didn’t get this at all.
Too many twists and turns. I never thought I would see myself complain about twists and turns, but in the case of this book, I just thought there were too many. Once Scarlett started playing the game, at first the twists and turns were fun to follow along with, but after a while it felt like every page was filled with lie after lie and plot twist after plot twist. It just got so convoluted that I often found myself going in circles, and since I wasn’t overly invested in any of the characters anyway, after a certain point, I just really wanted it to be over.
Distracting romance. Julian, the handsome sailor Tella enlists to help them get to Caraval, decides to participate in the game with Scarlett after Tella disappears. Even though Scarlett at one moment is frantic with worry about her sister, the next moment she’s practically falling all over herself as her attraction to Julian grows. I wasn’t a big fan of the romance because it seemed to come out of nowhere, especially since in the opening pages, Julian and Tella were mad flirting with one another. The romance did grow on me a bit the further into the book I got, but for a large portion of it, it just felt cringe-worthy and too ‘love at first sight’ for my taste.
Flowery prose. I like vivid descriptions as much as the next person, but some of the descriptions in Caraval were just too much for me. The book is just packed with sentences like this one: “She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.” I’m sure there are plenty of readers that would love a book written with these types of descriptions, but I like prose that is more simple and straightforward.
In some ways I think I probably set myself up for disappointment because I had overhyped Caraval so much in my own mind. Those comparisons to The Night Circus set the bar really high for me. Even though it didn’t quite achieve the magic and mystery of The Night Circus, I still enjoyed it enough to stick with it until the end and will probably continue with the second book when it comes out. I think for the right audience though, maybe someone who hasn’t read The Night Circus, Caraval would make for a wonderful and imaginative read.
RATING: 3.5 STARS
Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her 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 faraway, 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. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.