Scarlett and Tella are sisters living on Trisda, a tiny island in the far corners of the Meridian Empire, with dreams of escaping their miserable life of being with their harsh and unloving father. It’s not exactly easy when he’s the most powerful man and the governor of their little isle, and despite being arranged to marry a man she has never met, Scarlett believes it’s the only way to become free from their father.
Not until she gets an invitation to come to Caraval, the carnival-slash-game-slash-show, where the audience is not just a group of sitting guests, but can active participants in the spectacle. Scarlett has always dreamed of going, especially since whoever wins the game gets granted a wish as a prize, and this is her only alternative for freedom — or she can get married. With the help of a mysterious man, Tella gets Scarlett and herself off from Trisda only to be kidnapped by Caraval’s gamemaster, Legend. The game, it turns out, is a race to find Tella, and Scarlett has to be an active participant, or risk losing her sister. It can get very immersive in Caraval, and Scarlett is finding it difficult to delineate between game and reality. Is it truly all just for show, or are the stakes for real?
What I Liked
Caraval is marketed as ‘The Night Circus meets Daughter of Cross & Bone’. I don’t know what that means since I have not read the latter, but I made an active effort to read The Night Circus before writing this review since it has been recommended to me, oh, five years ago!
Anyway. I have thoughts on The Night Circus that will have to be in a separate post, but suffice to say that if people keep comparing Caraval to The Night Circus, it is not unwarranted. There are elements in Caraval that are reminiscent of The Night Circus — magic, how the carnival is only alive at night, and a mysterious persona overseeing its proceedings. Romance is present in both books as well and it has echoes of similarity, but two books mean different plot and characters, and that made the romantic journey varied.
(As an aside — I didn’t care much for the romance, although the male character is your usual dark, mysterious, roguish, will-risk-his-life-for-the-girl romantic lead that I was admittedly attracted to, so he served his purpose well!)
Now while I found the descriptive writing in The Night Circus more beautiful and textured, I prefer how Caraval has a more focused plot. There is a sense of urgency, of consequence, that if things do not proceed in such a way, then there are alternatives that can happen. What if Scarlett doesn’t rescue her sister, what if Julian is actually Legend, all other what ifs that arise can have a negative fallout, and that made Caraval compelling to read through to the end.
Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world.
What I liked most about the book was the world of Caraval. It is a positively magical place, and I would love to be a passive observer of the game if only to experience the magic. The author mostly used scent as descriptors, and I was captivated by how a particular place can smell of a first kiss, long-lost love, or of dreams and fairytales. The other attractive quality of Caraval (the carnival, not the book per se) is that it plays on the fantasy of readers who desire to be in the world of their favourite books. In Legend’s Caraval, the performers are not just the people who tells the future with cards, or plays songs, or sells food and drink: all are actors, and they are ‘citizens’ interacting with the guests, driving the game’s plot as directed by their gamemaster. Imagine being able to actively participate, to breathe in and experience the world of your beloved fantasy stories?
What I Found Iffy
The book is told in third-person but readers go through the novel mostly from the eyes of Scarlett. The elder of the two sisters, Scarlett is the more cautious one but I can’t say it was because she was being smart. It was difficult for me to be in her shoes because she was too easily led, too naïve, and when she was trying to think for herself, she goes for the most stupid deduction you can come up with. I mean, bless her, she tries very hard, but Scarlett was completely correct when she described her younger sister Tella as being brighter, smarter, and braver. To say that the sisters are foils for each other is an understatement, and it is personal preference that makes me side with Tella more.
So while Scarlett was a little vexing, one thing that disappointed me personally is seeing that blanket description, ‘olive skin’, for someone born and bred in an island. If we’re going by the Fitzpatrick scale, there are two types of olive skins — the lighter, Mediterranean version, and the darker Asian (the Middle East, South, Southeast Asia; maybe even parts of Africa and South America) version. My birth country, made up of 7,100 islands (so lots of island dwellers!), have brown shades of skin that range from sandy to tawny to chestnut to mahogany. There is no shortage of descriptors for brown. Why are the majority of the fictional characters vaguely olive?
Again, this is a personal gripe, and you can even say I’m nitpicking but I am longing to read about a female lead with brown skin like mine, who is strong and smart, who is on the border of Mary Sue-ness because everyone thinks her pretty, who can affect a change in the fates; a brown-skinned “chosen one”. I’m eager to come across a book that I can recommend to my younger female cousins where the lead character is someone they can undoubtedly imagine as looking very similar to them.
All that aside, I enjoyed reading Caraval. Stephanie Garber has created a world that I am interested to discover more of, and with how she ended the book, I get the feeling that readers may be Tella’s shoes for the next one. I’ve already said that I find Tella to be more after my own heart, so if that is the case for Caraval #2 (is there a name for this series yet?), I think I may just read the sequel.
“A wish isn’t something someone can give. [..] The wish would only work if you wanted it more than anything.”
– Stephanie Garber, Caraval
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Let’s have a chat!
Have you read Caraval? What did you think of it? If you haven’t, is it at the top of your to-buy list?
Many thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for letting me read an advanced copy via Netgalley! This review was in no way influenced by this circumstance.