Caraval | Caraval #1 | ISBN 9781250095251 | Flatiron Books , 2017 | 4 of 5 Points
“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.”
“Caraval” is like a lovely devil’s food cake with too much overly sweet chocolate frosting on it. Somebody tried a little too hard, but when you scrape the top off a bit, it’s still delicious. It’s the story of Scarlett, who is the only person in an apparently Spanish speaking world with an English name (except for her love interest, Julian), who has dreamed of going to Caraval, a kind of mix between an amusement park and an itinerant circus, for all her life; but when she finally gets the chance, she decides that she cannot go, because her wedding to a guy she has never met and who she only marries to get away from her super abusive father is going to be in ten days, and there is just not time to do both things – but then Scarlett’s sister Tella and the mysterious sailor Julian kidnap her, and next thing she knows she’s on an enchanted island about to embark on the adventure of a life time. And that would all be dandy if she didn’t a) need to be back home in a week to marry her fiancé, and b) didn’t accidentally lose her sister, who has become a pawn in a twisted game that intertwines fantasy with reality until nobody knows what is illusion and what is reality.
PUPPETS, PLAYERS, HEROES
Despite her not-quite-fitting name, I did like Scarlett a lot. She is a girl who stopped dreaming because of the constant abuse from her father, who keeps punishing Scarlett for whatever Tella has done wrong and vice versa with vicious beatings and other cruelties. Even though she used to want nothing more than to see Caraval, so much so that she wrote to Legend, the Master of Caraval, for years, now her only desire is to marry and get off her island so she can keep her sister and herself safe. She slowly regains her ability to wonder and dream while searching for Tella in Caraval, and by the end she learns to overcome her fear and to fight her father, Legend, and everybody else who wants her harm.
And it’s a good thing that she gains this fighting spirit, because Caraval is an intriguing, but incredibly dangerous place. While everybody keeps telling the players that nothing that happens there is real, reality and illusion melt together along the edges of human vice and weakness, and the roles of good and evil are reversed so many times that you’re going to feel like you’re on a carousel after a while. It’s filled to the brim with interesting people, some who are merely there to deal out cryptic advice, while others pop up again and again and become integral parts of the story before you even notice. Stephanie Garber has a certain talent for creating characters with very few brushstrokes, with only a few words and dialogue lines (as is the case with Jo) or by emphasizing aspects of her characters that take on a life of their own in the reader’s mind, so you fill out the blanks while reading.
Julian, Scarlett’s love interest, is sadly a rather typical YA hero – he has a dark secret, he is never there when Scarlett needs him but shows up randomly when she is in deep shit, and generally behaves like a 12-year old the one second and like a 30-year-old the next. He keeps calling Scarlett ‘Crimson’ to annoy her, which, honestly, is such a pre-pubescent kind of behavior that I likely got more annoyed than Scarlett. I guess he’s alright as a character, but once you’re spoiled by the increasingly interesting heroes of modern romance novels this kind of kid just doesn’t cut it anymore.
The third main character, Tella, is likely going to be the protagonist of the next novel (“Caraval” is a duology), and I do think that I am going to like her as a protagonist. Thing is, I did not like her as a side-character. Yes, it constantly turns out that she is not as carefree and rash as Scarlett thinks, but reading about her from Scarlett’s point of view just made her seem extremely spoiled and self-centered, even though Scarlett loves her dearly. I generally have a tendency to dislike younger siblings of main characters whose older siblings care about nothing but them, so I guess Tella didn’t really stand a chance. But I’m still looking forward to the second book, and to reading a story as wonderful as “Caraval” with Tella’s voice.
SUGARY, FLUFFY, UNNECESSARY
On the subject of voice, it’s very obviously that this is a debut novel. The writing is good, in general, but to be honest, it’s best at those parts when there is the least distinctive voice. Stephanie Garber tries to make Scarlett’s voice sound like fairy tales and poetry, but she ends up writing flowery nonsense that just feels wrong most of the time. For example, Scarlett has a form of synesthesia (it’s never called that, but I’d say that was the intention) where she associates emotions with colors. There is no pay-off to this, it just happens, it has no influence on the story. It starts with the second sentence in the narration proper, and it does not stop until the end:
Whenever she feels something, it has a color. I’m sorry, I know this is supposed to be special and lovely and creative, but it’s just annoying. Describing a character’s feelings is a hot iron in general, and putting a color to every. single. emotion. just makes the whole thing super kitschy, and there is a huge difference between fairy tale dreaminess and just kitsch. And to make it worse, sometimes Garber tries to use comparisons to make the whole thing more vivid (I guess), which only actually work in 30% of the cases.
Also, for some reason everything in this book is ‘made of’ something:
In the center of it all, a woman with hair as red as fury sat across from a boy made of lean lines, his head shaded by a dark top hat.
Scarlett glimpsed the other side: a passionate sky made of melting lemons and burning peaches.
Julian ran his fingers through his hair, flashing her a look made of lies and other sinful things.
Sheltered by gauzy drapes of white that hung from carved wooden posts, the bed was covered in silk pillows made of fluff and thickly quilted blankets, tied with rich currant-red bows.
But unlike the sailor, this young man was made of polished boots and neatly tied-back hair.
And on and on and on. I hope it’s clear why this was annoying for me: It sounds strange as hell, and even if it had been okay if Stephanie Garber only used this kind of phrasing once or twice in the book, having it show up in basically every single descriptive paragraph was just too much.
This is what I meant with overly sweet frosting on the very delicious cake that is “Caraval”: Garber just tries too hard to make the book sound like a romantically dangerous fairy tale, and she uses narrative devices like those I laid out above for no other reason but because she likely thinks it makes the story sound more magical. But the story was already magical, even without all that sugary fluff. If you’ve got a perfectly good dessert, you shouldn’t drown it in icing just to make it taste really sweet.
I really did enjoy “Caraval”, despite the kitschy purpleness of some of its prose. The story was beautifully told and the plot was really well-done, and figuring out what was real and what wasn’t alongside Scarlet was a lot of fun. Her father was a great villain, Legend kept me guessing, and even Julian proved to have the one or other interesting quality every once in a while. Stephanie Garber created a fascinating, colorful, unique world, and if she gives us more of that in her next book (and a little less icing), I’ll be eating up that one in one bite as well.
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