Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Publication Date: January 31st, 2017
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Before you enter the world of Caraval, you must remember that it’s all a game . . .
Scarlett has dreamed of attending Caraval since she was a child, listening to her grandmother’s stories of the magical splendors of the mystical performance. When Scarlett gets engaged to a count that she’s never met, she believes that her chances of attending Caraval have passed for good. Yet, when a letter arrives inviting her, her sister, Tella, and her fiance to the performance. Scarlett’s elation fades when her sister, Tella, is immediately kidnapped. Scarlett must navigate the world of Caraval to find her and remember one thing: don’t get swept away in the game or it might cost you your life.
Caraval has received quite a bit of hype and push in the librarian/book blogger world, so I was thrilled to snag a copy when I attended BEA 2016! Immediately you’re thrown into the chaotic world of Scarlett and Tella Dragna, where they dream of an escape from their brutally abusive father. Scarlett pines away for her mysterious fiance, and Tella self-medicates by getting into precarious situations with sailors that visit their sheltered island. Scarlett, the more conservative of the two sisters, has been dreaming of attending the magical performance of Caraval ever since she heard her grandmother’s stories growing up and she’s wanted nothing more than to experience the wonders of the game itself.
Having written to Legend, the game-master of Caraval, incessantly, her letters have always been met with silence. Never has Legend written back to her. So when a letter finally arrives with three tickets inside, one for her, Tella, and Scarlett’s mysterious fiance, she knows her life is about to change as she knows it. Through some slick maneuvering, Scarlett and Tella end up on the boat belonging to Julian, a dashing sailor who is as dangerous as he is handsome. The trio rides to Caraval and immediately, Tella goes missing. Her disappearance soon becomes the goal of the game: Find Tella and you win a wish to be granted by Legend.
One would expect a lot from a novel that centers itself around a magical game-performance. However, I immediately noticed holes in the development of both Scarlett and Tella as characters; they both seemed trope-y to me: Scarlett being the more conservative, straight-laced sister with Tella as the fire-brand who craves adventure. Their development never moves past that… Scarlett seems so concerned with finding “true love” that she is blinded to very straight-forward clues in the game. I’m sorry, are we here to find your sister or here to find your true love? The author, Stephanie Garber, attempts to explain this away, but it left a bad feeling in my mouth (so to speak). All of the secondary characters confused me; it seemed like their only purpose in the novel was to confuse Scarlett as she went through the game, which I understand, but when something happens to them, are we supposed to feel anything? I didn’t…
The world-building was the strongest component of Caraval. Garber has a talent for writing expansive, beautiful worlds that beg to be discovered. At certain points, this was the only aspect of the novel that kept me reading this book. Garber’s descriptions of Caraval are beautiful and intense; the players play at night and if you’re not in the hotel by sunrise, you risk leaving the game. Scarlett’s clothing changes on its own depending on what plans Legend has for her that day. Every shop in Caraval is unique and slightly frightening and I loved that every scene bordered on the insane.
Garber definitely has a talent for world building, but I felt that the story itself should have been deeper. Scarlett and Tella’s entire premise for attending Caraval is to wish for a life of freedom away from their abusive father. However, Scarlett seems to believe that her marriage to a Count she’s never met with save her from him. Oh, did I mention that her father arranged that marriage? Yeah… Sorry Scarlett, but that’s not likely. Am I the only one who sees this? Unfortunately, there’s too much telling and not enough showing when it came to conflict resolution and the logic of the novel. There is a scene at the end (don’t worry, no spoilers) where the author basically tells the reader what is going on, instead of putting clues in the story to let the reader figure it out. This is one of my reading pet peeves; don’t tell me in a long monologue what is happening, give me context clues to figure it out! Sadly, I felt cheated out of a great reading experience.