Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Remember, it’s only a game…
As a child, Scarlett Dragna dreamed of leaving her father’s home (and despotic control) on the tiny island where she and her sister Tella live, to attend the mystifying Caraval performance. Though she has long since given up this dream, this year she finds herself suddenly invited to the participate in the mysterious game she has grown up hearing tales of.
Scarlet is hesitant to accept. At this point, all she wants is to keep the peace until her arranged marriage to a foreign count (whom she has never met), only days away, so that she can get herself and her sister far away from their father’s cruelty. Her sister, however, has other plans, and manages to transport the two of them, along with Julian, a miscreant sailor and the sisters’ would-be accomplice. When Tella mysteriously disappears upon their arrival to Caraval, Scarlett is forced to do whatever it takes to get her sister back. As she finds herself a somewhat unwilling participant in game, the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur and Scarlett must make difficult choices, her own choices, for the first time, in order to save her sister.
The world of Caraval is just the dark and dangerous carnival atmosphere I was hoping for from the story, even if the larger story world doesn’t get too much attention (there is very little world building and it can be difficult to conprehend the larger world of the novel). Still, the court-like intrigue, dark alleys, and lush consumerism were fun and sexy, and I was ready to let myself get swept up in the game right along with Scarlett. Disappointingly though, the novel did not live up to it’s early promise.
The main problem of the story for me was the plotting. By the end of the novel, I was still waiting for a lot of the payoff for hints we were given a long the one. The motivation to evil of her father and others is a bit hard to follow. While it’s hinted at, the level of monstrosity is undeveloped. I like my villains complex and a relatable (at least a little) and there was plenty of potential for that in Scarlett’s father, yet the reason’s behind his intense cruelty were left under explored, minus a vague reference to his desire to protect his daughters. Hopefully the sequel will help to illuminate his character.
The development (or lack their of) of magic too was underwhelming. While the mystery surrounding the magic of Caraval is compelling at first, the seeming haphazardness of magic as the story develops becomes frustrating and a little incoherent. The economy of information too, leaves something to be desired. The potential of a world that trades information, and goods, for secrets is exciting. And yet, the payoff isn’t really there. If it’s dangerous to share too much information (as Julian warns her it is), shouldn’t there be some retribution for everything Scarlett shares to everyone not in on the game?
I am a sucker for a good female friendship in YA and Fantasy. Double points if its sisters. So I am easy sell on a story about the love between two sisters. And yet, for a novel about the love between two sisters, we don’t see them together very much, and what we see doesn’t give us much to go on. In fact, it’s the lukewarm romance that takes over most of Scarlett’s thoughts
Scarlett has serious potential as a heroine. It was a nice change of pace to see a character with some room to grow into herself, not already confident, headstrong, and brave beyond reason. The novel’s rendering of her struggle to overcome her abuse is quite touching actually. She begins the novel flattened by her abuse, unwilling to disturb the peace in an attempt to protect herself and her sister. Scarlett’s realizations about her own fear and her desire to protect her sister are compelling and Garber gives us an important rendering of a young woman with real emotional and physical trauma to work through. Throughout the game, she comes up against challenges meant to help her become a more confident and daring woman, allowing her to make her own choices and take risks. She is meant to learn to trust her self and others. And yet, the last few chapters seriously undermine Scarlett’s individual growth as we see all of her decisions as part of a much larger game controlled by other people, deflating the sense of growth and maturity in the text. And her easy acceptance of all that her friends have put her through is maddening.
All of this being said, I had fun reading Caraval and will more than likely read the sequel when it comes out. In fact, I read the book in one night I was so into it. It wasn’t until toward the end of the novel, when things weren’t coming together coherently, that I started to get frustrated.