Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
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Series: Yes, #1 in the Caraval series
Release date: January 31st, 2017
Publisher: Flatiron
Length: 407 pages
Source: ARC from BEA16
Rating: Hmmmmm

Welcome to Caraval, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.

Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.

When the sisters' long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show's mastermind organiser, Legend.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.

A mesmerising, magical and stunningly imaginative debut novel for anyone who loved The Night Circus and Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

I struggled sooooo hard with what to rate this. There's one thing about Caraval I can unequivocably rate five stars, and that is the imagery. I'm an EXTREMELY visual reader, so it makes sense that by far my absolute favorite part of Caraval were the visuals. I could see this place completely. I wanted to live in in and roll around in it and eat it. It was sumptuous and the descriptions were wildly evocative. I'm glad this has a good chance of becoming a movie, because I could already see it in my mind, and it was stunning. The writing--after the bizarrely clunky opening chapters--is STUPENDOUS. The metaphors and rich details and sumptuous setting really accented the whimsy and seductive madness of the magic.

I want to live inside Caraval. It's vivid and rich, I want to read a million stories set in it...

...starring different people.

And there's the kicker. I didn't connect to the characters, and the plot lost me. And so while I was left with a setting I absolutely wanted to explore, my guides in this unknown world just kind of let me faff about a bit too much. Which is sad. I don't like faffing. I like to be yanked about on the edge of my seat and breathless with fear. I wanted to care about Scarlett and Tella and the fate of the game. But mostly I was going "ooh what a lovely description", which is...well, not enough. ALAS AND ALACK.

I struggled hard with the characters, particularly Scarlett, our MC. (On my first draft of this review, I spelled her name wrong continously. Oof, not a good sign.) She's an earnest young maiden who once dreamed of the magic of Caraval, the magical game... fair... carnival... show... thing??... that she's heard stories of, but after a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her cruel father, she has put away her childish fancies and is set to marry a rich dude she's never met who writes nice letters and, most importantly, lives very much Not Here, aka Scarlett's home, the isle of Trisda.

Sure, close enough.

Oh, Scarlett and company, I wanted so much from you. They lacked depth and sparkle, and most of Scarlett's thoughts were presented to me, rather than the narrator letting me feel them myself. I'm not quite sure who she is, besides being rather joyless and very not into the whole splendor of Caraval and being singlemindedly obsessed with getting Tella back.

I did love her synesthesia, though. It tied into the whole evocatively visceral and visual nature of the book. I swear I could taste it. It was downright luscious. I could fling a million more adjectives around about how much I loved the world of Caraval, or more specifically, the town of Caraval itself. The world surrounding it is a bit underbaked, though. The worldbuilding couldn't quite decide if it was going to be a Spanish-ruled Carribean setting or not. Half the names were Spanish-ish and the rest were just...who knows? And like there was islands and heat but also snow and???? IDK, the world surrounding the isle was kind of blank, though I'm sure it'll be explored more in book 2. I vote for more of those brief Pirates of the Carribean vibes.

But yeah, those characters. None of their relationships really worked for me, and Scarlett was rather  a dud of duds. What a buzzkill. Of all the people to lead us through his mad wonderland of vice and vanity and illusion, did it have to be Miss Gasps-a-lot? Like she's a nice sort of girl? Shaped? Person? I certainly FELT for her, but she essentially tripped through the narrative like a limp mop, stumbling over the next imcomprehensible plot point as it was presented to her, and we just bumbled along with her. Supposedly her driving force is her unbreakable bond with Tella, but since we don't really know Tella--apart from her being the reckless, selfish sister whom Scarlett should honestly smack--I didn't really much care if Scarlett found her or not. Mostly I wanted Scarlett to keep visiting pretty places and maybe kiss the hot dude more. STOP FRETTING, SCARLETT. CRACK A JOKE. HAVE A DRINK. JUMP THE HOT DUDE'S BONES. IT'S FINE.

So yeah, characters were a flompity whomp (the technical term). But even more than that, the big selling point of this book--the game! The Night Circus Game!!--is...well, it's not really a game, is it? I thought there'd be, you know, rules and competitors and stakes? And we could play along with Scarlett and try to solve it before time runs out? But you can't. There's almost TOO much mystery to the game. I honestly had no bloody clue what was going on 90% of the time, like even when I liked a few things (highlight for spoiler: LIKE WHEN THEY DIED TOGETHER FOR A DAY and Julian died with her, that was such a lovely moment rather drowned out by a whole lot of ??? before and after) but mostly I stumbled through this book yelling

I like that nothing is supposed to be feel, but when LITERALLY NOTHING is real, there's nothing to hold onto at all. You can't follow the game, because everything is such a misdirect and everything is far too veiled and there's simply no logic at all. It's a heady, splendid reading experience, but I also felt very unmoored. I couldn't sympathize with the characters because I just had no earthly idea who they were or what they were meant to be doing.

I'm not sure what to think. I think this book in most regards is excellent, but I also think it's most definitely overhyped. I think, however, it will make a splendid movie, because the visuals are A+, and a good actress could solve my Scarlett issue. Also Tella kind of sucks. Highlight for spoiler: If I were Scarlett I would PUNCH HER for putting me through all of that holy shit

 I don't even know what the make about Julian, who is the character who worked for me the most, but again the "unreal" aspects of the novel make it almost impossible to connect to him because a) everything moves too fast and b) I spent almost every moment going "wtf is actually happening", which makes it impossible to get to know him.  He's one thing one moment and something entirely different the next, which I know is the POINT, but you need SOMETHING to anchor to. Who are you?? I can't ship you if I don't know you! Did he and Scarlett EVER have an honest conversation? Was a SINGLE CHARACTER in this book EVER telling the truth except for poor, bumbling, earnest-as-earwax Scarlett?

I also have LOTS OF THOUGHTS about the ending, but I honestly don't know how I feel about it. I kind of hated a lot of it, and it also made the whole book feel a bit pointless, but I also love a certain aspect of it. I do know I LOVE the epilogue. The setup for book two sounds wayyyyyyy more interesting than this one, since it'll star a character with FAR more agency who actually, you know, might be interested in exploring the magical splendid splendiferousness that is Caraval (SERIOUSLY SCARLETT GO ENJOY YOURSELF HAVE A DRINK BUY MORE DRESSES CRACK A JOKE)

I know that was, like, a billion (give or take) words detailing all the things that frustrated me about this book, at the end of the day, I still bought a finished copy (the thing is bloody gorgeous, okay??). There was something magical about this book despite the infinite problems I had. Maybe that's why it was so frustrating to me, because I loved sooo much of it, but it also kind of shot itself in the foot. Either way, Caraval is a decent book, if most definitely over-hyped.


  1. This. All of this.

    [insert drinking pirates gif here>]

    1. *toasts you with a mug of pirate ale*

  2. Oh my goodness, I haven't read it yet, but I have heard SO MUCH from people who really didn't like the ending or characterizations. Great review! :)

  3. You took the thoughts right out of my head! While I binge read it in two sittings, I never cared about any of the main characters. Then around 120 pages from the end, all I could say was, "This is it?" Such a bummer, but I'm hoping the next one will be an improvement.


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