My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length; 407 pages
Release date: 31 January 2017
Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.
Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.
When the sisters’ long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show’s mastermind organiser, Legend.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.
I was initially hesitant to pick up Caraval in spite of the rave reviews because of the poor experience I had with the other “circus of debauchery” release this year, Daughter of the Burning City. Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. I’m happy to report that Caraval is a better novel in almost every respect. Unfortunately, DotBC being weighed down by as many insufferable qualities as it is, beating it isn’t a very high bar. Caraval still ironically fails to take its own advice not to “get too caught up in the game” and repeatedly gets tangled up in its pretensions of grandeur.
The “game” of Caraval, along with all its “clues,” is frustratingly confusing and has a structure that makes no sense, seeming more often than not to be completely arbitrary. It’s no stretch to say that Scarlett quite literally stumbles into clues, doing things that have seemingly zero connection to the scavenger hunt-style quest that she promptly declares to be progress. It would be better if there were at least a few red herrings, but no, basically every action that she randomly decides to take ends up leading to a major reveal. The idea of Caraval as an ultra-mysterious game blurring the lines between reality and illusion is great, but the execution is, predictably, lacking–admittedly, it would be hard for even a great writer to pull off a story that lives up to self-generated hype as the greatest performance ever, and Stephanie Garber isn’t one by any means. This could simply have been avoided by hyping Caraval less, but I don’t suppose that would have made for half as intriguing a premise.
No insight is given into what participants other than Scarlett are doing, which gives the impression that they’ve all gotta be impotent vegetables, because good grief, girl’s dumb as a sack of bricks. It’s like she intentionally makes the worst decision possible at every turn, ignoring people who tell her that maybe, just maybe, she should rethink her plan to charge straight into danger. As if her stupidity isn’t annoying enough, she’s also the unrealistically dutiful daughter with a pure heart of propriety, to the point where she reads like a Regency romance heroine.
Of course, her dedication to return to her abusive father in time for her arranged marriage to the count whose name she doesn’t know doesn’t stop her from taking every chance to marvel at the enigmatic, brooding love interest Julian’s muscles. *Gag.* Emily May’s review (rightly) compares this book to The Forbidden Game, and it’s worth noting that although that book was written in 1994 as sexual horror lite aimed at Labyrinth-oriented tweens, Jenny Thornton is still ten times the character Scarlett Dragna will ever be.
This is one of those novels where the ending has the potential to make or break the entire story, and in this case, it didn’t quite make it. The final plot twist in Caraval is somewhat clever, but a variation of it was done much better in the obscure 2009 film Exam. As a side effect, it also wipes out much of the emotional punch that came before, leaving us with an unsatisfying ending that doesn’t, as I hoped it would, resolve many of the lingering questions regarding the magic of Caraval. We’re never given an explanation for how the magic works or what forces power it, instead having to simply rely on the rushed two-page deus ex machina infodump that serves as Garber’s attempt to tie up loose strands.
Caraval is a gripping read that maintains its veneer of mystery long enough to hold your attention to the end, but if you want a psychological thriller set in a beautiful and creepy alternate world where the protagonist is tasked with recovering her kidnapped sister, read Wintersong instead.