My TBR list is huge and the books I see on bookstagram are a large part of the reason why. Caraval by Stephanie Garber was a book I kept seeing over and over again – but with various covers – all over my feed and there was a lot of hype around it. So naturally I went out and bought it.
We are told time and time again in the book that at Caraval nothing is what it seems – and unfortunately this is a reality for us in the real world too, as Caraval is definitely not what it seems.
The story is about a once a year, week long ‘performance’ show of magic, adventure and (most of all) mystery where the audience and participants are one and the same. Scarlett must find her sister, who has been kidnapped by Legend, the master of Caraval, before the time runs out, but in order to find her she must play the game.
Now it would be unfair of me to say that I disliked Caraval because I did like it overall, but I just feel like this was a book that has suffered significantly from ‘over-hype syndrome’ and has therefore fallen a little bit flat. When a book comes out from a debut author with multiple different hardback covers (5 that are mass market and a secret 6th one that is sold exclusively at a supermarket here in the UK) for people to collect, you would expect it to be a near masterpiece, or at least something that doesn’t scream ‘debut novel’. But unfortunately that’s not the case.
“Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality.”
I do feel slightly guilty about giving this review, as it’s quite negative at times. It’s not the books fault as such; the writing is ok for the most part, the characters need work but aren’t a complete write-off and the story has potential to become much more as the inevitable sequels follow. But all these things just don’t reflect the hype and the marketing that went into this book.
If this had been a relatively quiet release that didn’t draw a ridiculous amount of attention to itself with multiple covers (in hardback no less) and instead allowed itself to be a pleasant surprise to readers this review would be very different. But instead, I feel duped – hence only feeling slightly guilty for the words that are about to come.
The first thing I noticed as I read through Caraval was the absolute absence of world building. The Isle of Trisda could have been anywhere in the world, and we got very little information about it. If you’re going to create new lands, your readers need a bit of help figuring out what it looks like! The same is true for Caraval itself – ok we get a map at the beginning of the book, but the descriptions within the story don’t do much to help us get a clear image of what’s going on. If you are writing about something as fantastical as Caraval, then this needs to be written in a way that gives the reader a pretty good idea of what things look like.
The second thing I noticed was that there was a lack of character development throughout the story – but I’ll get to that shortly. Instead of world building and character development we seem to have been given flowery and nonsensical descriptions in their place. There are many, many metaphors and similes used throughout Caraval and whilst they were very romantic they made no logical sense. Tell me, how can an expression fall like a dropped doll?
Another thing that got under my skin was that Scarlett felt her emotions and experiences as colours –how does something ‘taste like lies’? Now this could be because Scarlett possesses magic or something similar that will (hopefully) be explained in the sequel – but as no mention or hint of this at all was brought up in the entirety of Caraval I have to bring it up here instead.
“He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue. Colors that made her feel safe and guarded.”
Now don’t get me wrong, whilst a lot of the descriptive language was very… ‘creative writing class assignment’ some of it was beautiful. So beautiful in fact that it almost distracted me from the fact that there’s no world building or character development!
Onto the characters – allow me to deliver my thoughts on them in the same brisk manner that their character development was considered: Scarlett was boring, weak and repetitive and never changed throughout the story. She’s portrayed as a caring sister but her actions throughout the plot clearly don’t reflect that. We don’t see enough of Tella for her to prove her pre-assigned personality wrong, The father is a 2D character with an unbelievable personality shift from the girls’ childhood to adolescence and the supporting cast have the strength of wet cardboard. As for Legend himself – he’s named incorrectly. Mr ‘Meh’ Tryhard would be a little more relevant. His motivation is dubious at best and unplanned at worst. Perhaps he will be more fleshed out in the sequel – I genuinely hope so because the character (and story) has real potential.
“Hope is a powerful thing. Some say it’s a different breed of magic altogether.”
The real star of the show is Julian. His role goes deeper than just eye-candy for Scarlett and despite being a red-herring several times (which admittedly got a bit tired) he still kept my interest throughout the book.
So whilst I’m saying something positive, let me tell you what I did like about Caraval. The story itself was good, and it was tinged with darkness, I love a good foray into the darkness, which was handled very well. It had maturity about it but also sensitivity when needed. There was also a lot of action happening throughout the book, there was rarely any time to stand still. The pacing was great and there was always a sense of danger present to push you through the pages.
When all is said and done, Caraval is not a bad book. However, it did let the marketing side of things get carried away – and this unfortunately led Caraval to fall victim to the dreaded overhype.
I’ve heard it be compared to the brilliant The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (if you haven’t read that I can’t recommend it enough). I’ve heard people say it’s the ‘YA version’ of The Night Circus and this isn’t fair to either novel. Caraval is like cheap beer you can buy in a 12-pack and The Night Circus is like vintage champagne. There’s nothing wrong with cheap beer – sometimes it’s exactly what you’re craving – but do not pour it into an empty champagne bottle and try to fool me!
“No one is truly honest. Even if we don’t lie to others, we often lie to ourselves. And the word good means different things to different people.”
Do you want to play the game? Caraval is available here!
[PLEASE NOTE]: I was not paid or sponsored to write this review – all the opinions are honest and my own.