Author: Stephanie Garber
Genre: YA Fantasy
Series: Caraval Duology
Synopsis: Remember, it’s only a game… 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. (taken from Goodreads)
As a fan of The Night Circus, I was intrigued the minute I heard about Caraval. You know. A book set in an enchanting circus, revolving around some sort of game. There was magic and wonders and mystery and romance. Sounds really Night Circus-y to me.
While I didn’t expect Caraval to be a carbon copy of The Night Circus, I have to admit, I did expect a little more from it. The world was rather underwhelming. There were times that the imagery was lovely, but despite all the fantastical descriptions, the world was not explored as much as I would have liked. So much of Caraval was described but very little was explained, and the world-building was weak. The writing tries to make up for it with its prose, which only made things melodramatic.
Most of the characters were underdeveloped and lacked depth. I couldn’t connect with any of them. The “villains” of the story had no true motive, the minor characters felt more like decorations to add to the “whimsical” atmosphere of Caraval, and the other players never seemed to actually play. I thought that Scarlet was unlikable, and I couldn’t bring myself to care about her at all. The characters’ relationships with one another were unconvincing, and the romance ended up being instalove-y.
Though I mostly had to plow my way through, the second half had me on the edge of my seat with its unpredictable twists and turns. Unfortunately, I was met with a rather dull ending that merely reinforced all my negative feelings about this book. The brief moments of tension and excitement did not compensate for an overall lacking read.
(TW: Abuse and suicide)
This portion of the review is a slightly more in-depth discussion of the book and will contain spoilers/rants/raves. Read at your own discretion.
Okay. This book wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good either. For all the times it gave us so many descriptions of the circus, it lacked world-building. See, the problem here is that Caraval is set in a fantasy world. I don’t just mean the island itself, but an entirely new earth that the author has created. And we get absolutely nothing from it. Snippets of Trisda’s history were mentioned at the beginning. There was something about the five Empires, the Conquered Isles, and an empress named Elantine. Then poof! None of those are ever talked about again or touched back on. Isla de los Sueños, though occasionally enchanting, was also confusing. Caraval wasn’t much of a circus, but I guess more like a small town with circus-y and Alice in Wonderland-esque elements? I couldn’t get a solid grasp of what the place was supposed to look like, aside from the fact that it was colourful as hell. Literally everything was described by color. Even the colors themselves had unnecessary descriptions, which I found bothersome within the first fifty pages of the book.
“Gold—the color of magic and wishes and promises of things to come.”
“Cerise—the color of seduction and secrets.”
“Red—the color of hearts and blood and shame.”
Geez, what’s next? Brown, the color of tree bark and dog food? They’re repetitive, annoying, and distracting. A person could only take so much descriptions of color. Oh, there were other strange descriptions too. They seemed forced and were no less annoying. Case in point:
“He tasted like midnight and wind.”
“She felt as if she could taste the red of the curtains.”
“It was the kind of night where she could smell the moon….”
Apparently you can taste the colors of a curtain and smell a celestial body from thousands of miles away. The prose tries too hard to be poetic but it fails miserably, and comes off as overdone. It also tends to put emphasis on things or descriptions that are unimportant. For example, Scarlett has on a magical dress that changes every whenever, and every single time it does, we’re given a detailed description of her new attire, which never really adds to the story itself. I think it happened five, maybe six times? Honestly, I couldn’t care less about what her dress looked like or how it exposed the “curves she’d rather have concealed.”
Color is a theme used throughout the novel, even by Scarlett herself. She constantly sees colors “attached to her feelings.” I thought this little character quirk would have a bigger impact on the story, perhaps give her an advantage in Caraval but nope. Just another excuse for the author to add more flowery prose.
There were some parts of Caraval that I did enjoy. Cassabian’s clock shop, the canals, Nigel’s tent (because who doesn’t want a tent filled with pillows???), Castillo, the wooden mansion, and the secret tunnels. I loved how the tunnels had a variety of unique paths. The imagery, especially the when Scarlett first stepped on the island, was wonderful. My favorite though would have to be the carousel of roses. That I absolutely adored.
Look, I love a good magic system. It helps make a fantasy world feel real and solid. Sad to say, this book didn’t have one. Even the characters themselves didn’t seem to understand how the magic worked. There was no structure, no explanation whatsoever. Okay, I get it. The whole Wonderland inspiration means the world and the magic is nonsensical but that is no excuse for a crappy magic system.
“Aiko must have been telling the truth about the rain washing all the magic away…”
I mean, it says in the book that rain washes away the magic. So does rain make Legend’s magic weak? Do the performers have magic too? I know that Julian doesn’t age but I have no idea how that works. But does that mean the other performers stay young or is Julian special cause he’s Legend’s brother? If it’s any consolation, one thing I did like about the (nonexistent) magic system though was the concept of time passing differently in various places. That was great and interesting but again—no explanation of any kind.
Then we have the characters. Oh boy. I could not connect with Scarlett’s character at all. In my opinion, she was rather unlikable and naive. She goes from “I need to save my sister and return home in time for my wedding” to “having a romance” as her priority. During most of the book, it is emphasized that Scarlett’s main priority is to save her sister. Again and again, we are reminded that yes, Scarlett is in Caraval and she’s playing the game—but only to save her sister. Yet it seems as though whenever Julian comes in… her priority just shifts? To him?
I don’t get it.
All she thinks about is how attractive Julian is. Her skin tingles and her breath hitches whenever he touches her. She sees colors of blue and gold that spark or whatever. And when she almost drowned? Yeah, she was more worried about how she had never been in such an intimate position with a boy, all because Julian had to cut her corset open with his knife. Yeesh.
Their relationship was too instalove for me. It’s funny because in the later chapters, when Scarlett finds out that Tella got engaged to some stranger, she tells her this:
“You can’t be in love with someone you just met.”
Uh, hypocrite much, Scarlett? The events of story take place in a span of five days (maybe even a week if you count the events before Caraval itself). I think that pretty much counts as “just meeting” a person. They barely spent time with one another, were separated for most of day two of Caraval, and were even dead for an entire day. Explain this to me please, because I don’t understand how people can spend so little time with each other and suddenly proclaim that they’re in love.
That aside, I thought Julian was the most interesting character in the bunch. He was the reason I made it through the first half book, though I didn’t like the fact that he only stayed in Caraval because of Scarlett. I honestly thought there was something more to his character than just being smitten with the protagonist but apparently, I was wrong.
I definitely liked Tella better than Scarlett but we didn’t get much of her, which was also why I couldn’t get behind the whole sisterly bond thing. There wasn’t really much that proved they had a “strong” relationship. Maybe it was just me but Tella didn’t seem to care about Scarlett as much as Scarlett cared about her. It was always Scarlett having to prove something, never the other way around.
Scarlett and Tella’s father, Governor Dragna, was such a one-dimensional villain. You know the type. Evil for the sake of being evil. We also have Count Nicolas d’Arcy who… was just there. I have no idea what his purpose is. He was a confusing mess of a character. Also, something I noticed is that for some reason, every guy in this book is tall, dark, and handsome. Julian, Dante, Legend, and even Count d’Arcy were all described as attractive with a hint of danger. For a good couple of chapters, I couldn’t distinguish Julian and Dante in my head because they just looked alike to me.
The other Caraval players were glossed over. I found it strange how none of them seemed to get in Scarlett’s way, even though they were all after the same prize. As for the rest of the characters, I thought a couple of them were interesting but underdeveloped. Seriously, Aiko, Dante and Nigel? I wanted to see more of them. It also kind of bugged me how Valentina just disappeared. Never to be mentioned again, not even during the party at the end.
Legend. Okay, I gotta admit, I wasn’t expecting that twist with Caspar. Actually, a lot of the twists were great. They had me so confused at times, which I suppose was a good thing since I ended up flying through the pages because I wanted answers. There were some heart-racing moments, and I think that the intense last half of the book was infinitely better than the first. Admittedly, I thought the ending, with the revelation that Tella had been the one to set the entire thing up, just didn’t do it for me. No one who died was actually dead, and basically the entire point of Caraval was to scare their father off? Kind of anticlimactic. Everyone was in on it except for Scarlett. I honestly felt bad for her at the end. She suffered through some pretty traumatic events and thought most of them were real. What kind of sister would put her through that?
All-in-all, it was an okay read. I didn’t like it enough to give it more than two stars, but I did like it enough to want to read the next installment. The epilogue hinted at Tella as the protagonist for book two, which I’m looking forward to. That, and the fact that I (hopefully) will no longer have to read feelings as colors ever again.
*EDIT: It’s been about three months since I posted this review. When I first read Caraval, there was this one scene in particular that bothered me, but I didn’t mention it here in my review since I figured it was a little more personal. However, it still bothers me every time I think about it, so I decided to I’d add it in here anyway, for those who might have felt the same way about it.
The scene I’m talking about is Tella’s suicide.
Reading it made me extremely uncomfortable. Her “death” was nothing more than a plot device and yes, I understand it was used to further point out the whole “it’s just a game and nothing here is real concept” but it was not done well. Tella killed herself on purpose and used her fake death to spur Scarlett into proving that her sisterly love could get them through the game. She basically put her sister through intense emotional trauma, then brushed it off right after because hey, it wasn’t real! She wasn’t actually dead so everything is fine, right? Well, no , everything certainly wasn’t fine for me. I had to put the book down when I got to this part, and I even seriously considered DNF-ing it. I managed to get through, but it did put a damper on my reading experience (which wasn’t that good in the first place).
So yeah, the whole suicide thing caught me off guard and bothered me a lot. It was pointless, set up only to add tension and drama to the last few chapters of the book. Again, these are just my personal thoughts on this particular scene. My rating of 2 still stands.