YA Weekend: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

CaravalCaraval by Stephanie Garber

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Series: Book 1 of Caraval

Publisher: Flatiron Books (January 31, 2017)

Length: 407 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Caraval seems to be the kind of book that readers either love or hate, but once more I find myself falling somewhere in between. While I enjoyed the story for its enchanting and whimsical premise, like many debut novels, it is also not without its flaws.

The book begins with an introduction to a pair of sisters living on the Conquered Isle of Trisda under the eye of their cruel, abusive father. Since childhood, Scarlett and Tella have both dreamed of Caraval, a legendary performance show that is only held once a year in a far-away land. For years Scarlett has written to Legend, the mysterious ringmaster behind Caraval, begging him to bring his show to their lonely island, but never once has she received a reply…until now.

Unfortunately, Legend’s invitation couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time. Scarlett has all but given up on seeing Caraval, and there’s no way she can travel there now, not when she is engaged to be married in about a week. She has never met her fiancé, whom her father had arranged for her, but that hardly matters to Scarlett; all she wants to do is leave the isle for good, taking Tella with her so that they can escape their horrible father forever. What she didn’t count on, however, was her sister having different plans. On her own, Tella had made the acquaintance of a handsome sailor named Julian and arranged for her and Scarlett’s passage on his ship to attend Caraval, unwilling to let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip through their fingers.

What actually happens at Caraval has always been shrouded in magic and mystery. All Scarlett knows is that the show involves a game where the audience participates, and the winner is awarded with the ultimate prize, the granting of any wish by Legend. When they arrive though, the last thing she expected was for her own sister to be kidnapped and be made part of the performance. As the clock ticks down, Scarlett becomes less and less convinced that Caraval is just a game, and now she must do all she can to find and save Tella before her sister is lost to her forever.

First, the good: Caraval is a book full of twists and turns, and as expected there are plenty of surprises. Nothing kills my enthusiasm faster than a predictable YA novel, but thankfully this is not a problem here. Sometimes, I even wondered if the author had any idea where her story was going to go before she started, since the plot had that touch of randomness that made me think she might have just made things up as she went along. The ideas behind the novel are also imaginative and compelling. Together with the swift pacing, this creates the fever dream atmosphere that perfectly brings out the urgency of Scarlett’s quest.

And now for the not-so-good: for a novel that is supposed to espouse the loving spirit of sisterhood, I found the relationship between Scarlett and Tella incredibly off-putting. Scarlett is protective to the point of smothering, and Tella is a manipulative spoiled brat more often than not. It didn’t matter how many times the author tried to hammer a point home through repetition, I simply could not grasp any sort of connection between the two sisters, let alone any kind of trust. Then there was Scarlett’s romance with Julian, which was also built on shaky foundations. Julian is hardly what you would call a valiant hero, and I think I would have been more on board with their relationship if Scarlet’s attraction to him didn’t feel so much like Stockholm syndrome.

Caraval is also the debut novel of Stephanie Garber and sure enough I spotted a few quirks in her writing that I often associate with relatively new authors. The big one is “telling not showing” and the constant repetition of key ideas as illustrated in the example of Scarlett and Tella’s relationship, which was just discussed. For the most part the prose is well-written, though occasionally there will be an awkward phrase or two that jumps out at you and smacks you in the face. World-building is also pretty sparse, though to be fair, more world-building might not have mattered that much due to the nature of this particular story, but still, I think it would have helped anchor readers more firmly to the setting.

Bottom line, Caraval wasn’t bad, but I fear my tastes in YA fantasy are growing increasingly hard to please. I see a lot of potential in this series, and even though that potential failed to manifest itself in this first book, I have hopes that the sequel will hit closer to the mark. Yes, I do plan to give the next book a try, since despite my issues with the book’s characters and writing, I think the next book will show development in these areas.


Mogsy 2

31 Comments on “YA Weekend: Caraval by Stephanie Garber”

  1. Your mention of the big sin about “telling not showing” might be like a huge alarm bell for me, especially if coupled with the repetition of known facts – one of the most off-putting habits in my view. There have been mixed reviews about this book, and yours just convinced me that this might not be the right one for me…
    Thanks for sharing! 🙂


    • Yeah, it was another hyped title in my opinion, but it had its high points and it was overall enjoyable enough that I wouldn’t mind checking out the sequel! That one’s going to have a lot riding on it, I think 🙂


  2. Awww, I’m sorry you didn’t totally enjoy this book, though I’m glad you liked some aspects. I will definitely agree about the sisterhood – I can tell that they love each other, but I don’t like their dynamic. I didn’t like Tella at all! And part of me wanted to see Scarlett stop being so mother-hen-y. But then, I try to think about me and my sister… I’d be protective of her too. And I’m the younger one! Only by eleven months though.

    Anyway, I really liked this book and I thought the hype was 100% justified. Maybe it was how early I read the book? Well, we can’t love them all!

    Excellent review! Have a wonderful week, Mogsy. =)

    Alyssa @ The Eater of Books!


    • Yeah, in my opinion it could have used a few more rounds of editing and improvements, but it wasn’t bad! Especially for a debut. My goodness though, did Scarlet made me mad sometimes, lol! And Tella was even more annoying! I never had a sister though, only a brother, so it’s entirely possible that I’m just missing out on the important parts of the dynamic 🙂


  3. Against all odds, your review rekindled my interest in this book, haha. Now it sounds a little like a mystery or thriller, whereas before…I don’t know, I guess I thought the “quest” sounded more juvenile. Still, with all the lukewarm reviews, I think I’ll pass unless book II is a stunner. Thanks for the review! 🙂


  4. I know what you mean: the more YA fantasy you read, the more your tastes develop and you find fault it what doesn’t measure up for you personally. The same thing happens to me time and time again. I’ve read mostly good things about this so far but for some reason I’m not sold on it. I’m not even sure if I added it to my tbr shelf yet. Thanks for the honest review^^ xx


    • Yeah, and I think the more I read, the more I see authors just use the same old tricks. To credit Caraval though, I thought the story was actually pretty fresh in this regard because of the unpredictable plot and the author’s unique ideas 🙂


  5. I’ve been on the fence about Caraval despite (or maybe because of) all the hype it’s received from social media and whatnot. Between your review and another book blogger’s mixed opinion, I think I’ll either rent it from the library or skip it altogether.


  6. Yeah, I don’t know why but I just really liked this – I think in one respect because of the writing and in another the place – which was like a crazy Willy Wonka confection. I definitely, without doubt agree with you about the sisters – I didn’t feel the love between them at all, okay the ending maybe, but it felt a little too late. In a way it would be interesting to see how I felt about their relationship if I had the time to go back and reread (knowing how the story ends) but, let’s be honest, I don’t! So, I’ll have to read book two and see how the two of them come across in that story. It’s going to take a bit of convincing to say the least. Like I said though, I enjoyed this for some reason – I think I said that it felt like an indulgence at the time and I think I also read it over Christmas when I was feeling all lazy and overfed no doubt!
    Bring on No.2.
    Lynn 😀


    • I can definitely see this appealing to a certain taste – Alice in the Wonderland or Willy Wonky weird bizarro world type stories typically are hit or miss with me, so it’s possible I was more critical of this book because of that too 🙂


  7. I found this book so underwhelming, the characters were very flat. Plus I think the overwhelming publicity it got hurt it, I expected writing as beautiful as The Night Circus – but Scarlett’s narration is pretty flat. Thanks for your honest review ♥️


  8. I was looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this one! I agree with everything you said. I’m tempted to read the sequel to see if I like it better or if it gets stuck with the problems from the first book.


  9. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

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