Book Review – Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Usually when I find new books to read it’s through recommendations or hearing something about them first. In this case, I moved by complete and total impulse. I saw the cover while I was shopping and it reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Night Circus, so I copied down the title and looked it up when I got home. The premise sounded intriguing enough and I’ve been on a streak of young adult aimed novels that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so I went ahead and read it. While it has its moments, Caraval doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of its premise and leans too heavily into melodrama for my personal tastes.

For years, Scarlett had hoped that she and her sister might be invited to the magical Caraval game her grandmother had told them stories about that is held every year. But as she got older, Scarlett realized it was far more important to get married so she could leave her abusive father behind and take her sister, Donatella, to safety with her. Shortly before her nuptials (to a man of her father’s choosing and whom she has never met) she receives the long desired invitation to Caraval. It’s dangerous to go but Donatella won’t let Scarlett say ‘no’ and once they arrive on the island where Caraval takes place (with a little help) it turns out that the game the Caraval Master, Legend, has in mind is a more personal one for Scarlett. Donatella is kidnapped before they’ve even been there a full day and clues have been left behind for Scarlett and the other Caraval players to puzzle out in order to find Donatella and win Legend’s prize of a wish. But not everyone involved in Caraval is who they seem; magic and lies bend expectations and mislead and it’s up to the players not to get carried away by the game they’re playing.

As a reader, I love having my emotions played with but it requires careful character building and subtlety for it to work and there isn’t enough of either in Caraval. Scarlett’s emotional reactions to everything are too intense and out of balance. While there are some wonderful descriptions of the magical Caraval setting, Scarlett’s worry for her sister distracts from not only her enjoyment of it all but this reader’s and there just aren’t any significant breaks in that high level of anxiety. Every time Scarlett starts to enjoy something or feel something else, she immediately begins to question it—because so much of Caraval isn’t what it might seem—and ends up right back where she started. Since her emotions are so intense all the time, it means that the twists and turns of the plot aren’t as sharply defined as they ought to be. Every little thing that happens comes across as being ‘the most dramatic’ and keeps there from being a gradual escalation of tension that pays off in a big way at the end. Instead the novel’s climax is just another thing that happens. The resolution and emotions meant to resonate are wasted because the reader is already numbed by overexposure.

The themes at the heart of the novel related to not just trust but also conquering fear and not letting it hold you back are similarly undermined by the way Scarlett’s emotional state is portrayed. She does grow and learn from the whole experience but because her reactions swing so strongly from one extreme to another, that growth can feel like a reactive whim rather than genuine growth and development. When it’s difficult to invest emotionally in the protagonist or narrative focus the way I found Scarlett to be, I can usually find a secondary character or two that makes things easier. Except in Caraval, those characters are woefully underdeveloped. Even Julian, with whom Scarlett spends the majority of her time, appears wildly inconsistent, both to the reader and to Scarlett; all for good reason, as it turns out in the novel’s climax and resolution but it doesn’t help his character enough in retrospect for me. There might be some benefit to going back and rereading the novel once you have the answers from the ending, but I don’t think it would yield up enough gems to make it worthwhile.

The teaser epilogue lays a bit of foundation for the next book in Garber’s Caraval series and with the promise of some narrative changes (namely shifting focus away from Scarlett), I might keep an eye out for the sequel and hope some of the bumpiness of this story is just part of the natural development process… but we’ll have to wait and see.

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