Caraval (Caraval, book 1) by Stephanie Garber
Genres/Descriptors: fantasy; YA
Pages: 407 (hardcover)
Trigger/Content Warnings: child abuse, physical and psychological abuse, attempted/threatened sexual assault/rape, sexual harassment, kidnapping, blood, murder, suicide
Check it out on Goodreads
What’s it about?
Scarlett and her younger sister Tella live on the island of Trisda with their abusive father. They grew up hearing stories of the magical Caraval, but now that Scarlett is engaged to be married to a man she’s never met, she thinks she’ll never be able to experience Caraval. But, at least she’ll be able to get herself and her sister away from their father.
Days before her wedding, an invitation to Caraval arrives, finally. Tella gets some help from a mysterious sailor to take her and Scarlett away, to Caraval. Once they arrive, Tella is taken by the creator of Caraval–Legend–and whoever finds her, will win the game, and one wish.
It’s only a game, but Scarlett can’t help feeling that it’s not. Something about this year’s game feels too personal, too dangerous. With five nights to find her sister, time is short and Scarlett can’t help but get swept up in the game, unsure of what’s real and what’s just a performance.
Okay… *takes a deep, calming breath* This is going to get long. I mean really, really long.
I went into this knowing that it was not going to be like The Night Circus. I remember it being marketed as something for fans of TNC, but I knew from reviews that it was nothing like that book. Still, I gave myself another couple of years to let the hype die down a bit, as well as time to let reviews fade from my memory a bit so they wouldn’t influence my opinion of it as I read it. I wish I’d listened to the negative reviews and passed on this one
I’ll try to keep this spoiler free until the end, where there will be a spoiler warning.
First of all, the characters. Oh my gods, Scarlett was definitely too stupid to live. She never learned, and I didn’t care about her at all. All of the characters felt a bit flat to me, and I think I only kind of liked one character (who was only in like 2-3 scenes I think, and I’m blanking on her name). We’re supposed to believe that Scarlett loves Tella more than anything in the world, but I never got that impression. We were told (over and over again) that all Scarlett wanted was to find her sister, to save her sister, but her actions didn’t really support that most of the time. And she was so freaking boring.
And oh my gods, Tella. *takes a calming breath* I have never hated a character that quickly before (less than 50 pages in), and I hated her throughout the entire book. Tella was a horrible person, and an even worse sister. She was manipulative and selfish and I hated everything about her. Not that we really got to know her, but what little we saw of her was not good.
The entire story is supposed to be about Scarlett and Tella and their sisterly bond, but neither of them honestly seemed to care about the other their wants/needs. Instead, each tried to force their own desires onto the other. And where is the trust? They each seem much happier taking the word of strangers. More on all of this in the spoilery bits at the end, ugh.
The other characters were no better. Their father was literally just child-abuse personified, that’s it. I’m not saying you can’t hate a character for being an abuser, but that was all there was to him and his personality. He was an abuser, full-stop. There was no depth at all to him, despite the attempts to shove some in by the memories of how he hadn’t always been that way. (I also really didn’t like the way it was implied that it was Scarlett and Tella’s mother’s fault for his behavior, because she left them.) Oh, and let’s not forget that he gave his daughter to a man and basically told the man to go ahead and have his way with her. Against her will. Yeah.
Then there was Julian, who was just awful. His behavior toward Scarlett was gross, especially early on, and honestly made me think of Edward Cullen in a better light when I mentally compared the two. The only thing I know about Julian, besides his name and role in Caraval, is that he’s apparently hot and muscular? So hot that an engaged character falls in love with him in less than a week, despite knowing nothing about him. That’s it.
The plot: Where is it? This story is so convoluted, and nothing is real (but some things are!), and it just keeps switching from “This is the truth!” to “No, actually, THIS is the truth!” and back and forth throughout the entire book. I just don’t care. I wanted to care, but I just couldn’t. I think an effort was made to keep the reader guessing, but it failed.
The writing was not the worst, but I feel like there was an attempt made to make it beautiful, and it just turned out to be kind of a mess. You can’t fake beautiful writing, and I might have actually enjoyed this (slightly) more if not for the forced flowery-ness. It was just way over the top, and seemed pretty pointless. I kept thinking that it felt more like middle grade trying to be YA. Not that middle grade is bad, because it’s not. But this just felt like it was written for a younger audience, either middle grade or maaaybe the bottom end of YA. Does that make sense?
But how about the world? I feel like this is a world that could have been so interesting, but we actually don’t get to experience much of it. While we are wandering through Caraval, we’re stuck in Scarlett’s head, which didn’t help. We see almost nothing that really gets across how magical Caraval is supposed to be. Sure, I wasn’t expecting The Night Circus, but damn it, I was expecting something. I wanted to see some magic, see the game, see some kind of performance or something. But no. The only time we actually got a glimpse into anything like that was when Scarlett went into a fortune teller’s tent, and that was probably the absolute best part of the entire book. I wanted more like that.
We never even got an idea of how the magic worked, or what was actually magic instead of a clever illusion or reality. There’s something about blood, and wishes, and time, but no actual explanation. Lack of explanation for magic systems is one of my biggest pet peeves. I wanted to know more about it, and instead we get crumbs that are almost nothing.
Even though I went into this knowing there was a good chance I wouldn’t love it, and I had my expectations really low, it still disappointed me. It’s been a long time since I’ve finished a book and immediately said, “Yep, I’m unhauling you ASAP,” but that’s what happened with this one. I want back the hours I spent reading this book, please.
I gave it 2 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, but I think it’s more like 1.5 for me, and I might lower it to 1 star.
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
This is probably just going to be word-vomit because my brain is a jumbled mess right now.
Scarlett was infuriatingly stupid, as I said. I still don’t understand how someone could have survived her abusive father that way, and remained so naive and idiotic. She had no common sense at all, and oh my gods the insta love! Okay, let me get this straight: your sister conspires with this guy to drug and kidnap you, you wake up on a boat a couple days later with the guy who kidnapped you, and you’re already like, “Ooh he’s hot! I like him!” WHAT?! This isn’t even Stockholm syndrome. She literally wakes up, talks to this super-hottie (WHO KIDNAPPED HER!) for like five seconds, and she’s already starting to fall for him.
And Tella, her sister, was the mastermind behind the kidnapping, yet Scarlett doesn’t even really seem annoyed by that. I don’t know about you, but if my younger sibling did that, I would be so pissed off. Yeah, I would definitely want to find them, but not just because of some protective instinct. I would be gearing up to rip them a new one because that is so freaking wrong in every way. I don’t care that Tella had good intentions, and ulterior motives, and had arranged all of this with Legend (which we don’t officially discover until the end, but I suspected it early on). Tella was a selfish asshole, and I never saw any real evidence to support the idea that these two sisters were so devoted to each other.
This has to be one of the absolute worst depictions of sisters I’ve ever seen. Scarlett is supposedly willing to do anything to save Tella, and it’s her deepest desire, but let Julian and his golden abs walk by, and suddenly all Scarlett wants to do is chase after him. And Tella! Oh my gods I wanted to throw her off the balcony myself at the end, when she was basically gaslighting Scarlett and taking the word of a guy she’s known for less than a week over that of her sister. I mean, yeah, she was kind of telling the truth, but yikes. And then she throws herself off the balcony thing,killing herself in front of her sister, to break their father’s hold on them? But wait, there’s more! Surprise! She’s not totally dead because ~magic~ and all that! Scarlett ~wished~ her back to life, hurrah!
You guys, I beat my head on my desk so many times while reading this book. I could rant about this book for days, but I’m going to try to wrap it up soon, I promise. (If you’re still reading, wow, thank you. Or, I’m sorry? I’m not sure which is more appropriate 😛 )
Julian was such a terrible love interest. He started stripping in front of Scarlett even though he knows it makes her very uncomfortable, he won’t allow her the privacy to change, he kidnapped her, he lies to her, and I was really uncomfortable all around with their relationship. It reminded me a lot of older YAs that had the bad boy love interest who was all possessive and creepy. But apparently all that (and more) is fine with her, because it was all a game! So she just forgives him, and I guess they’re going to be a couple now? Oh, did I forget to mention that he doesn’t really age, so he’s probably actually around the same age as Scarlett’s grandmother? That’s fine, too, because he still looks like he’s around her age! Ugh.
What even was the deal with Scarlett’s color thing? I kept waiting and hoping for that to become an actually important part of the story, but it was apparently just shoved in there to make her seem more interesting and to add more flowery stuff to the writing?
Where was the magic? Where were the performers? Oh, right, they were everywhere, playing the game. Which we see almost nothing of. I thought the carousel was interesting, kind of, but the only thing I actually really loved about this book was the tattooed guy who told Scarlett bits of her future. That part was great, and I wanted more stuff like that.
But the magic? Tell me more! How does it work? What can it do? What are the limitations? Apparently raising the dead is part of it, because any performers who die will come back at the end, but HOW? They mention time and blood powering magic, and how wishes are magic, but not how or why. It was so frustrating. And Tella, who killed herself, came back because of a wish? Because Scarlett loved her so much? Sorry, but please actually show me that Scarlett and Tella had that close of a bond, because I never saw it. And where is the explanation for how the performers (or at least Legend and Julian) stay young? That was just casually thrown in, without any explanation at all. I want to know at least a little about how the magic works, what it’s limitations are, what the cost is, etc., but we get nothing.
**End of Spoilers**
Okay. I think I’m done. I’m exhausted, and just want to scrub this out of my brain, but oh no. I’m apparently a masochist, because I plan to at least attempt to read Legendary because I got the Kindle edition on sale a while back. Save me.