CARAVAL by STEPHANIE GARBER
A REVIEW by ALEXA DUNCAN
I first heard of Caraval from the gaggle of creators I watch on YouTube. (Side note: If you didn’t already know, YouTube has a bustling community in which users talk about nothing but books. We call it BookTube. It’s wonderful.) It was everywhere and it was all anyone could talk about. Everyone—even publishers and industry professionals—kept comparing it to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, a delightful adult novel centered around a magical circus. Since no one would shut up about Caraval, I knew I wanted to give it a go when it was eventually published in late January of last year.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed in what I read.
Caraval is set in a vague Spanish-inspired fantasy world and follows two sisters, Scarlett and Tella. Scarlett, the oldest, is responsible and careful, while Tella is reckless and prone to making less-than-smart choices. Scarlett and Tella live alone with their absolute jerk of a father, who physically and mentally abuses them at every turn. Scarlett, who was arranged to be married to a man she’s never met, is looking for a way out, not just for herself, but for her sister. That way out is Caraval, a magical carnival run by a man called Legend. After Tella is kidnapped by Legend, Scarlett must leave her home and save her sister by any means necessary.
My main problem with Caraval is that everything felt too vague, too convenient, and too predictable. Scarlett, our main character, has trouble putting two and two together most of the time, even when the answers are right in front of her. Perhaps we can chalk this up to Caraval being Garber’s debut novel, but it was still annoying to read. As for the vagueness, there’s little to no worldbuilding to be found here. There’s magic, but we don’t get an explanation as to why it’s there. There’s Spanish-inspired names and places and aesthetics, but that’s all we know about our setting. Nothing gets explained and readers are left feeling rootless.
The writing, which you’ll either love or hate, got on my nerves. It’s clear that Garber was making certain stylistic choices with her prose to make the book feel more dream-like and whimsical. Some writers can pull this off magnificently. Laini Taylor is one of them. Read Daughter of Smoke and Bone if you haven’t yet. Garber, however, needs some work. She uses the same sentence structure over and over again to describe something. Here’s what I mean: “-Insert noun here- is like –insert color here-.” Garber does this many, many, many times throughout the novel, and, we get it. Things are colorful. Or something.
For all my griping, Caraval did have sparks of magic to it. Some of the scenarios Scarlett runs into while at Caraval were exciting to read about. Legend, who was pretty much the only character I cared about, was interesting as well. It’s not hard to see why people like Caraval, but it left me with more questions than answers. I supposed I could read the sequel, Legend, which came out this year, but I may just look up reviews on Goodreads instead.
You can pick up a copy of Caraval at the Argenta Library today!