Caraval

1.5 Stars

Stephanie Garber
January 2017

*Review by Alexa*
*Additional thoughts by Tiffany*

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.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.

Unpopular opinion alert: Caraval is one of the most overhyped and underperforming books I have ever had the unfortunate circumstance to read. It’s tedious, ill conceived, amateurish, and, despite the main protagonist being a woman–and being written by a woman–it has a rather misogynistic view of women. This was a book that I had been putting off due to the absolute suffocating force of the hype machine, but with the sequel looming I thought I’d put aside my reservations and jump in feet first. Well, thank goodness this isn’t actually a body of water because it’s so shallow I would have broken both my ankles.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime. You can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle. But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it’s all a game.

I’m feeling generous, so despite its plethora of flaws let’s begin with the very few things that I did enjoy. As with so many books that end up being substandard, I really like the concept of this book. The idea of a magical carnival lends itself to all kinds of genres and could go in all sorts of directions—this one doesn’t, but it could, and that’s what drew me in originally. Unfortunately, a great concept doesn’t mean anything if it isn’t executed well, so maybe this is more of a con than a pro. I actually did enjoy the writing style even though it was a little frilly. I’m not someone who is deterred by superfluous description, and this book has that in abundance. Do I need yet another description of the night sky or a dress? No, but I’m not bothered by it either. My favorite aspect (and the most hated by some) is the way Garber uses colors to describe feelings. I can see how this would get obnoxious to some, but I enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it in the same way that I enjoy seeing how many times my six year old can ask me the same question in one day. That is to say with a sadistic curiosity that exists mainly as a survival tactic to make it through the day. In fact, seeing how many different colors Garber could come up with—and which emotions she would pair them with—became kind of a game for me. Will the embarrassment be magenta or maroon? Will her bewilderment be periwinkle or violet? Will an emotion ever be just an emotion or will it be a rainbow of unnecessary description? Who knows?! *Spoiler alert: it’s always a rainbow*

Now for the…let’s be nice and say inadequate aspects. The setting and characters were all shallow and not fully realized. For instance, the story takes place mostly on an island during Caraval (the event), and, while that is somewhat fleshed out, the rest of the world isn’t at all. Are we in our world? An alternate history or timeline? Is it supposed to be high fantasy and a totally new world? Does Garber even know?  There are vague references to empires and dynasties, but nothing is ever explained. In a stand-alone book this can be forgiven (you only have so many pages, after all), but in a trilogy this really isn’t acceptable. I don’t need an entire history class worth of background—although I would be ok with that—but I need something to ground the story. Garber gives us no sense of the “rules” of her world and, as a result, nothing about her world feels real or relatable. Even in fantasy there has to be some foundation for the story to build upon.

He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.

Now for the characters, or, as I like to call them, the standard tropes masquerading as fully formed parts of the story. Everyone, even the “villains,” fall flat at best and are infuriating and/or obnoxious at worst. Not only did I not feel invested in any of them, but I actively dislike all of them. I can’t decide if Scarlett, our “hero,” or Julian is worse, but, regardless, they both feel insulting. I’ll get to Julian in a minute, so let’s focus on Scarlett for now. She is everything I hate about female characters: helpless, timid, vapid, and fairly senseless. All of these traits can work if there is a character arc or development, but Scarlett (and all of the other characters) have none of those. She lies constantly for no reason, she is obsessed with propriety, and her insta-love for Julian is of the gagging variety. Her supposedly compensatory quality is her fierce love for her sister…that is also never fully realized or conveyed with any sort of ferocity. Basically, Scarlett seems rather selfish despite her protests that everything she does is for her sister. Another unforgivable sin is solving a mystery without actually doing anything. In Caraval, everything is either done for Scarlett or she simply falls into the answers. It’s a cop out and it’s tiresome. To top it all off, I found myself skimming most of her inner monologue because I simply couldn’t handle anymore of her insipid whining.

Now, let’s talk about Julian or, as I like to call him, the stereotypical-male-protagonist-who-reinforces-society’s-misogyny-and-rape-culture. Catchy, right? In the first half of the book, Julian is nothing but a bag of unwanted sexual innuendo, sexual harassment, kidnapping, and belittling (he refuses to even use her real name) to Scarlett. But then in the second half of the book he mends his ways in a stunning character arc and is a perfect gentleman. Wait, that doesn’t happen. What happens is the typical YA trope of the woman falling for the horrible man because he’s attractive and so “deep.” The horrible way he has treated her must just be because of a hidden awful past *insert googly heart eyes*. Ugh, color me chartreuse with nausea. This is the same crap they tell little girls i.e. he pulls your ponytail because he likes you. No, just no. But the misogyny doesn’t stop with Julian. There are several examples peppered throughout the book, but the most blatant to me involves a fortune-teller and Scarlett. This fortune-teller reveals to Scarlett that what she wants most is “love and protection” and Scarlett responds with “isn’t that what every girl wants?” No, no that is not what every girl wants (although more power to you if you do), and how dare you perpetuate that. I put down the book for two days after that scene and very nearly didn’t pick it back up. A badly written book is one thing–that’s just unfortunate–but a book filled with patriarchal bullshit is inexcusable and dangerous.

Some would probably call him a villain. Others would say his magic makes him closer to a god.

So, yeah, I really didn’t like this book. I had originally given it 2.5 stars, but after I wrote out all of my notes I lowered it to 2 stars…but after writing this I think I’m going to have to lower it again. Every time I think about it I get more disgruntled. The story is boring and predictable, the characters are flat, the setting is lackluster, and the plot is full of holes and sloppy cop-outs. Most damning of all are the low opinions of women. Every female character doesn’t have to be a badass perfect warrior, that would be boring too, but they all can’t be limp noodles fanning themselves over an inexcusable man. YA authors have access to an audience that needs to see strong women, or at least intelligent women, and to see the dangers of dangerous men.  When an author instead uses their opportunity to perpetuate problematic stereotypes/situations, well that is inexcusable. I will definitely not be reading the sequel (I actually canceled my preorder), and I’m kinda bummed I wasted my time on this at all.

I’m really curious to know what you guys think of this one, so let me know in the comments!

-Alexa

On occasion, Tiffany will have additional thoughts to share about a book (she’s sassy that way)…so here are her thoughts!

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“Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world.”

That quote up there is the bold-faced lie we are told very early on in this book. How dare you tell me to expect magic and then bombard me with useless dribble?

I am just going to add that I thought the color descriptions were tedious and over-used. Other than that, see above for everything Alexa wrote and I agree with. But seriously, this book was really not good.

Because I know so many people love it, I am going to suck it up and read Legendary. But I swear on my French Edition of Shadow and Bone, if it is just as terrible I am going to personally smite all of the people who keep telling me “It’s so much better!” I can’t handle one more sky blue, crisp as an apple, smells like midnight descriptor. And if anyone, ANYONE, in Legendary tastes like wind or a night sky, I will be, at long last,  DNF-ing my first ever book.

-Tiffany

2 thoughts on “Caraval

  1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it haha! Disgruntled reviews are my favorite to write and read, so I totally get it. Tiffany and I were speaking to each other in color/superfluous descriptions for days after reading this.
    -Alexa

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