by Stephanie Garber
Hardcover: 416 pages
Publisher: Flatiron Books (January 31, 2017)
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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.Have you ever read a book that felt like something you had already read even though it was set in a newer-to-you scenario and had a somewhat creative ending? Yeah. That's Caraval. I haven't read a lot of books with a carnival/circus vibe or with a magical game--much less a combination of both-- but Caraval still managed to feel like something I've already read. So. Many. Times. I went into this book expecting mesmerizing writing, a lush setting, a complicated game, and delicious twists and turns, but instead I got . . . standard YA elements. Or maybe they just paled in comparison to my previous read (The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, which was gorgeous and swoonworthy and so, so worth reading) and missed the parts that proved Caraval to be a spectacular stand-out in YA fantasy. It got better in the last 100 pages, but that didn't make me see the book in a much better light.
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.
This book is partially about a bond between sisters, yet one of them didn't have much page-time. Instead, Julian took up second-biggest spotlight and filled that role of the mysterious, possibly bad, smirking love interest that banters with the heroine. Considering that he was one of the most interesting characters to me, I didn't always mind his presence, but at the same time, I really wished there was more focus on Tella. (I have a feeling she'll have a larger presence in the sequel.) Tella was definitely my favorite character because she had a personality that leapt off the page. Most of the other characters were unremarkable, including Scarlett. I actually spent a good chunk of the book thinking her name was Crimson because that's what Julian called her. Julian was the only other character that I really liked, but I did find him unremarkable at many moments.
I was a bit frustrated with this book because the entire time I was reading, I kept wanting MORE--as in, more creative ideas, more surprises, more pretty sentences. I occasionally glimpsed what I was wanting from the book, but then it would go back to being lackluster and expected. I feel like an elaborate, magical game with a carnival/circus vibe could've been pushed to many new and wondrous places. It could've been more imaginative, mind-twisty, wicked, and extraordinary. This book shouldn't be one I describe as "ordinary," but . . . man, so much of the book felt pretty ordinary to me. The last night of the game and the events afterward came the closest to what I wanted, though by the time I reached that point, I already felt so over the story that I barely reacted to what was going on. Also, that was was only a chunk that was impressive and that didn't suddenly make the rest of the book seem better in hindsight. It just felt like a decent end to a disappointing read.
Overall, Caraval was a miss for me. It's a quick read, though. I was surprised that I was able to move through it so quickly as I was reading (though I still took forever to finish it because I took a big break from it). It was still an engaging story, despite all the negative things I said about it. I know it's been a hit for many early readers, but for me, it didn't feel as creative, substantial, or lush as I was hoping it to be.