Young Adult Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber
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The following review of Caraval (Flatiron Books, January 31, 2017) by Stephanie Garber is from Food, Fitness & Fiction contributing editor Amber Lee.
Here’s a description from Amazon:
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.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away.
[Spoiler warning! If you haven’t read the book, please proceed with caution.]
My first impression of Caraval is that it’s absolutely gorgeous. The typography and sparkly swirls are beautiful. Even the hardcopy cover itself has a shimmery teardrop motif on the front. The chapter division pages are ornately patterned and there are several letters in the novel along with the entirely epistolary opening. All the design elements of the book are amazing. And for the most part, the content of the novel lived up to the pretty trappings. Caraval is beautiful, inventive, and immersive. Though some characterization and plot machinations fall to the wayside because of it, the magical ideas are spectacular.
One of the first world-building aspects that stood out to me was that instead of using the standard European Fantasy setting, the book initially tried to emulate the Spanish Islands. The Spanish names and the vivid scenery of the Conquered Isles provide a refreshing setting. I would have enjoyed it a little more if Garber included more cultural, geographic, and aesthetic details to further differentiate the setting from bland fantasy settings, but what was there was still great, and then nothing compares to the subsequent descriptions of the Caraval itself. (Side note: Scarlett and Donatella’s home island from which they escape is called Trisda, which sounds like “sad” in Spanish. Just a little on the nose.)
All of the magical elements of the Caraval were so much fun. Garber put a lot of thought into endlessly wonderful ideas for the fantastic larger-than-life setting she creates with shapeshifting dresses, magic spells, secret tunnels, and so much more. The Caraval’s descriptions were beautiful and vivid, taking the reader along for the ride. I expected more of an actual carnival, but it’s much more like an interactive game with manufactured clues and a whole little town to explore. The lines between illusion and actual magic often meld together delightfully and I never knew what to expect. I was just so childishly excited to see what new ideas and gimmicks Garber packed into her world; it felt very much like how young Scarlett must have felt. Though at first the Caraval felt more like a Disneyland scavenger hunt, it soon took enough took dark twists I didn’t see coming which kept me reading. The only times that the suspense of belief was broken was when the wider structure of the game seemed too focused on Scarlett, or when the clues seemed more like whatever Scarlett did happened to be right instead Scarlett having to seek them out herself. The other contestants in the game were faceless and inconsequential, present in theory but never even making an impression on Scarlett.
Speaking of Scarlett, I have to say that she was not as well-developed as I would have hoped. Still, she is most real character in the novel. The use of color descriptions for emotions was very interesting and I expected a magical reason or some sort of fantastical synesthesia, but it was probably just a narrative choice. It certainly added to the vibrant almost-surrealness of a lot of scenes, though at times it was heavy-handed. I love that Scarlett is not the usual Young Adult book heroine; she is not headstrong, not impulsive, does not have natural leadership skills, and is very much a product of her abusive childhood. The narrative supports her as she slowly leaves her protective shell and passivity that she had cultivated out of fear of punishment for so much of her life, and the story of taking control of her own life and making decisions was great.
The only thing Scarlett has in common with the standard mold of a heroine is that she loves her sister Donatella fiercely, though that is not very well explored in the book. Her relationship with Tella is supposedly her driving force for the entire story, but the reader only sees them together for a few pages, mostly when arguing. Tella is the archetypal brash, devoted one with little forethought and a reckless love of adventure. Until the ending scenes, that seemed to be all she had. Because there was is little development on the sisterly relationship, Scarlett’s determination to find her sister seemed to fall flat and the thread of the story is sometimes lost. Scarlett rarely seems to actually search for clues and progress through the story on her own efforts, instead floundering around with anxiety about her sister and self-doubt while following Julian, her love interest.
Julian is the only character that has as much screen time as Scarlett. I wish Donatella had been given the same treatment. While Julian was full of secrets, he was also a bit one-note. His introduction as charming playboy is slowly overturned, but not enough to give him a genuine sense of person. He and Scarlett have some great scenes, and I absolutely adore the fake dating/fiance trope, but at the end, their undying love for each other after being there for less than a week was a little difficult to stomach. Scarlett is too often distracted from finding her sister by Julian to make her dedication to her truly believable, and Julian is supposed to be mysterious but becomes 2-dimensional at times. Because the characters aren’t as fleshed out or grounded as I’d like, the plot didn’t quite make as much sense to me. But it is still worth reading, especially because the major plot twist at the end is so unexpected and satisfying.
I loved the slow opening on Scarlett’s home island of Trisda. The initial spark of entering Caraval was also exhilarating, but then it started to lose steam. There was also the budding signs of a secondary love interest that had my love triangle alarm bells at code red. But after having Scarlett and Julian wander around the first couple days and consciously side-stepping the love triangle, Garber picked the momentum right back up by introducing new higher stakes and circumstances. If the middle stretch can be endured, the rest of the book is smooth sailing. The multiple plot twists in succession gave me happy reader whiplash as I tried to figure out who to trust and what to believe along with Scarlett, and the ultimate reveal at the end was truly different from any YA book I’ve read. The emotional transparency and all of the truth being laid out at last was immensely satisfying, and the ending was pitch perfect. Having both the opening and ending be a letter was brilliant, with a sense of closure as well as just enough intrigue to keep me looking for a sequel. After being spurned by so many closure-less cliffhanger endings in recent years, it was a delight to leave the book’s world being slowly re-immersed into reality instead of forcefully ejected.
The prize for unpuzzling the Caraval is a wish. Ultimately, all I wanted from the book at the end was more. And not all in a good way. I wish that some of the details of the Caraval itself had just a little more cohesiveness to it, that it actually was all a planned game with planted clues that Scarlett had figured out herself instead of her stumbling through and the plot coalescing around her. I wish that Garber had spent more time painting Trisda as a real place in contrast to the fanciful Caraval, that everyone’s character motives were more spelled out, that characters such as Scarlett’s fiance and her father that formed so much of the premise felt more real. In the end, Caraval suffered from the same ailment its villain has; great potential, but all flash and not enough heart.
Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Caraval is high quality escapist literature, perfect for any reader that seeks entry to a world completely outside their own.
Here are some other reviews of Caraval:
You can learn more about Stephanie Garber and her work on her website.
Amber Lee is a high school senior from Irvine, California. She is the Features section editor for the Beckman Chronicle. She likes having too many hobbies at the same time to actually really improve at any of them: like reading, writing, art, useless historical research, drums, guitar, webcomic-ing, boxing, Muay Thai, and critical consumption of mass media. You can follow her on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram.
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