See, the thing about books that are as overhyped as this one is that the disappointment when it’s not a great book (or not even a good one) is felt all the more keenly. This may have been a neat idea in the author’s head, but the execution is a disaster. This is a book just like its protagonist: pretty on the outside, absolutely vapid and without personality on the inside.
by Stephanie Garber
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton, 2017
Hardback: 402 pages
Series: Caraval #1
My rating: 3/10
First sentence: It took seven years to get the letter right.
Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world . . .
Welcome, welcome to Caraval―Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved 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 far-away, 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. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.
With all the crazy marketing going on about this book, I’m sure you’ve heard of it and I’m sure some of you (like me) were drawn in by the idea of a circus-like magical game. What with blog tours, pre-order gift campaigns, beautiful artwork and tons of mentions on social media, I felt like I already had a pretty good picture of what I was going to get. And that’s the problem. When you raise expectations and then don’t fulfill them, a “meh” book will feel like a terrible book, simply because it didn’t deliver what it promised. And that’s how I felt about Caraval. But let’s start at the beginning.
Caraval starts with a pretty solid idea. Two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella, live with their violent and strict father. Scarlett has recently been promised to some Duke and she thinks this marriage – albeit to a man she’s never met – will get her out of her miserable situation. And here’s the first logical flaw: Scarlett is also convinced that her marriage will help her sister Tella. I don’t know if it’s common in the world of Caraval that when one sister gets married, she takes the other one to live with her, but it seems pretty far-fetched to me. However, to Scarlett, this marriage is everything because even if she doesn’t know that her life will be better with her new husband, at least there’s hope it might improve.
But then Tella and Scarlett get invited to the legendary Caraval by Legend himself, the show-runner and creator of the game. They are taken to Caraval by a young (and of course super handsome) sailor named Julian. These first few chapters do very little to set up the world. There are constant repetitions of things we already know – the girls’ father beats them, their lives are terrible, Scarlett needs to get married – and no new information about how this world works, why Caraval exists or – probably the most crucial bit of information – how the game works. We are also told over and over how deep the sisterly love between Scarlett and Tella runs but, unfortunately, we never actually see that. They fight and bicker, they always disagree, and not in a cute Odd Couple way, but in a way that makes it appear as if they don’t really like each other.
When Scarlett arrives at Caraval, Tella has been kidnapped and remains the invisible MacGuffin for most of the rest of the book. So if you hoped to get what the synopsis promised – a tale about two sisters – think again. Because what follows is just another ridiculous and shallow romance, where everything is about how beautiful everyone is, what clothes they are wearing, and how dreamy their eyes are. I found it sickening, not only because the romance was badly done, but also because Scarlett is in Caraval – a place supposedly full of magic, and colors, and … oh yeah, wasn’t it supposed to be a game?
Caraval turns out to be a Venice-like place, in which a treasure hunt is conducted. The clues are as stupid as they are useless, but at least this setting offered some interesting scenes. I loved that you could pay for dresses with secrets, for example. That was a lovely idea, although our idiotic protagonist steps right into one trap after another. Maybe because she is so preoccupied with her new true love (whom she has known for a couple of days – why can’t that trope just die already?!). And sometimes with thinking about her sister, but not doing anything useful to save her. This is where I’ll stop talking about the plot for fear of spoilers. Although the “twists” can be seen miles away, anyway. The one twist I wasn’t sure about (but which also happened) made me roll my eyes so very hard, I was worried they’d get stuck that way.
What bothered me the most was that some really excellent ideas were thrown away with this book. I could tell on every page how very hard the author tried and yet she never succeeds. Caraval lacks atmosphere, despite the occasional nice ideas here and there, because every time it developed that sort of Night Circus flair that was promised, the focus immediately shifted back to our not-too-bright heroine and her romantic interest. The relationship between the sisters also never really feels real. There is SO MUCH telling going on, and no showing. In fact, sometimes the showing and telling contradict each other. The resolution of the game, its purpose, and its past, was also completely ridiculous and clearly cooked up long after the idea for Caraval came up.
In fact, the ending was the opposite of a cherry on top. What would that be? A kick in the face, maybe? That’s pretty much how it felt. I kind of saw it coming (probably because everything is repeated so many times that it’s hard to miss) but I held on to that last bit of hope that the author wouldn’t really go the super easy, super cheesy way. She did anyway. It’s one of the worst endings I have ever read.
I wish this idea had been turned into a novel by a more experienced author, or a more experience Stephanie Garber. I’m willing to forgive a lot with debuts but throwing a buch of ideas in a pot, adding a huge load of tropes, and no real substance, is just not enough to entertain me. With a protagonist who constantly acts stupid and spends most of her time in a magical circus inside the same hotel, thinking about boys, there was nothing to hook me. Even Scarlett’s inconsistent synesthesia couldn’t fix this mess of a novel. I’m sure if it hadn’t been hyped so much prior to publication, I wouldn’t feel this strongly about it. But it was hyped and I feel like I’ve been tricked by pretty covers, a shiny map, and (granted) great marketing. Since the story didn’t deliver, I will not be reading the sequel.
MY RATING: 3/10 – Bad!
Because many people actually loved this book and I truly wish I could like it too, here are some other reviews:
- The Book Smugglers (rated it “meh”)
- Beauty and the Bookshelf (rated it “lackluster”)
- SciFi Now (rated it 4/5 stars)
- The Eater of Books (rated it 4.5/5 stars)