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.
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
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.