Warning: If you have not read “Caraval” by Stephanie Garber, avoid reading this review if you wish to avoid spoilers and haven’t read the book yet. If you have read the book or you just don’t mind spoilers, go ahead and read!
I’m back with another book review, and this time it’s “Caraval” by Stephanie Garber! Here’s a summary so we know what it’s about:
“Remember, it’s only a game…
Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.”
I was hooked by the summary of this book. The mention of the whole event being a sort of ‘game’ reminded me slightly of Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.” However, after reading this book, it’s fair to say that “Caraval” and “The Night Circus” are two completely different books when it comes down to nearly every single sort of element. When it came down to the writing style of the book, I liked the descriptions of the people and the setting. My favourite part of the writing was where they describe the clothing changes brought about by Scarlett wearing the forever-changing enchanted dress Legend gifted her early on in the book after she arrived at Caraval.
The worldbuilding was rather weak, unfortunately. Even with the map in the cover of the book as well as the incredible amount of description in the book, it’s hard to understand how Caraval completely works, and some elements of the game are contradictory to each other. For instance, the Players in Caraval that die during the game are magically brought back to life at the end. Tella, who is clearly not a Player in the game, throws herself off a balcony only to be brought back to life one or two chapters later! Also, the worldbuilding of Caraval seems to be built on literally nothing but people lying to each other to get what they want. I understand that the point is that it’s all a game, but lying to get what one wants as well as to trip up the other opponents felt extremely overdone throughout the book. There are more ways to win a game than just lie to people all the time, after all.
When it came to the main protagonist, Scarlett, I expected her to be bold, daring and risk-taking, especially judging by the letters she sends to Legend in the beginning of the book. However, it’s immediately clear by the chapters afterwards that she is far too cautious. When given the invitation to attend Caraval, she immediately turns it down because she doesn’t want to be late for her wedding to some count she doesn’t even know, claiming that it would ruin her chance at happiness. This is coming from the same girl who enthusiastically sent letters begging Legend, the man in charge of Caraval, to come visit her land so she could see the magical acts. Scarlett even initially refuses to jump out of a boat and swim to land at one point in the book because she doesn’t want to ruin her clothes! That does not sound like a bold risk-taker at all, in my opinion.
It’s also noticeable that she is incredibly clueless when looking for her sister Tella and just happens to stumble upon most if not all the clues in the process rather than figure out for herself what they are, and does not think things through before going and doing them. This literally results in her being dead for two days straight at one point in the novel, though I won’t elaborate on how because that would spoil a major part of the story.
When it came to the romance in this book, I completely hated Scarlett and Julian being together. Julian doesn’t respect Scarlett’s wishes whatsoever, despite her telling him that she’s not okay with whatever they are about to do, whether it be sharing a room together under the guise of being an engaged couple or just giving her privacy in general. I was disgusted that Scarlett fell for him despite all of this, all because he happened to be good-looking and pretended to be nice to her a few times throughout the book, all while feeding her many, many lies about Caraval, himself, and the situation they were stuck in. Even if he supposedly, genuinely cared for her by the end of the book, that doesn’t excuse all the harassment he gave to her, all the lying he gave to her, and the fact that he didn’t even call her by her actual name until the end of the book as well, calling her “Crimson” without her being okay with it. The sex scene in the book was also completely unnecessary and at very bad timing, given that she and Julian were in the middle of running away from Scarlett’s abusive father and her actual fiancé. There is also a near-rape scene that takes place before the sex scene in the book which was also completely unnecessary as well.
Majority of the male characters were all written as being incredibly disrespectful to the protagonist Scarlett, with little motivation other than to torment and harass her, and therefore did not have much variety in their personalities and behaviours. Even Dante, who had more action out of all the main characters save for Julian, fell flat in his characterization, even if he was trying to find his sister Valentina. The one male character who was genuinely nicer to Scarlett out of all the male characters, Nigel, only existed for approximately three chapters and then was never heard of again, not even showing up in the after-party taking place during the last chapters of the book.
Given how the story was supposed to be about Scarlett and her love for her sister Tella, Scarlett spent more time criticizing her than loving her. Scarlett’s criticism of her sister’s actions, followed by Scarlett’s own actions during the story, often prove how hypocritical Scarlett is. Scarlett literally tells Tella off late in the book for loving someone she met in a week when Scarlett went off and did the same thing with Julian, for example. Also, other than the very beginning of the book and the very end of the book, there are barely any scenes at all where the sisters interact with each other, except for flashbacks. It doesn’t help that when Scarlett claims that her deepest desire is to find her sister when gripping these lie-detector scales in a dress shop that said desire to find her sister apparently is not true, either. The interactions Tella and Scarlet had in the present time in the beginning and the end of the novel felt less like sisterly care for each other and more like whining and complaining at each other the whole time.
Overall, I’d rate this book 1 out of 5 stars for the romanticized abuse, weak main character, lack of characterization in general, lack of worldbuilding and the weak sisterly relationship Scarlett and Tella were supposed to have.