I read Caraval by Stephanie Garber last night after seeing it mentioned on so many YA book blogs and instagrams of several authors that I follow. I had expected an adventure story, something fantastic and maybe a little dark. I was hoping for the excitement in the trials that Feyre had to overcome in A Court of Thorns and Roses mixed with the competitive atmosphere of The Hunger Games, but with much lower stakes (how dark can a book about a magical carnival game get?), and a much higher dose of magic. If anyone does write a book with those qualities, please let me know as Caraval didn’t hit the mark for me.
Here are five issues that I had with Caraval:
1. The protagonist, Scarlett: I can’t think of the name Scarlett without thinking of the grandest anti-heroine of all time, Scarlett O’Hara—sharp-tongued, selfish, and full of hustle and gumption. If Scarlett O’Hara had played Caraval she would have assumed her missing sister was doing just fine and tomorrow’s another day to hunt for the next clue!
Instead here’s Scarlett whose entire life revolves around protecting her sister, Tella who is quite headstrong and rambunctious while Scarlett is a mop. I cheered when Tella kidnapped Scarlett to get her off the island, especially since she predicted and outsmarted Scarlett who would have sabotaged their only sure chance of leaving. Plus, since when is getting married a more assured way to escape the clutches of her abusive father when its the father who arranged the marriage! Plus she got so repetitive: need to save Tella, can’t think about boys I have to think about Tella, I have so much guilt when I think about anything other than Tella even though I’m here for a game.
2. There were no stakes to the game. This seems like a fair game, I thought sarcastically when it was revealed that to solve one of the clues, you needed inside information about Tella (the clue involving postcards). Plus the set up of the book made it seem extremely linear—I’m not sure how forgiving the game would be if you tried to go out of order to solve the clue in a different way than how Scarlett solved it. And of course Scarlett would win—this game was literally designed for her.
I’m not even sure people were really trying to win. Aside from Scarlett, who else at Caraval was actually a real competitor? Everyone was either on vacation with the scavenger hunt an incidental side quest or a cast member. I felt like the only character who had any real investment was Scarlett, even though a wish is a pretty significant prize! I just wish it was a little more of a surprise of who might win the game.
Plus, no one could actually die, although I will say that losing time in the game because you’re dead was pretty clever. The game takes place over the course of five days, and Scarlett gives up two days of her life in order to buy a dress. Turns out, it’s not two days at the end of her life, as Scarlett expects, but right in the middle of the game. Scarlett “dies” and wakes up two days later.
This definitely upped the stakes of the game and sped up a plot that had started to drag. The author could have also used this to avoid coming up with more details to fill two days of events when really the game could be solved in less time. Either way, props to the author for thinking of that plot device.
3. What was this world? I could kind of imagine the castle and lake where she stayed… but the paths Scarlett and Julian traveled were kind of covered in a swirly fog most of the time. Plus it was a pretty contained location—it’s on an island after all. It might have been cool to get a map of the secret dark tunnels that exist under the island but I agree with this reviewer who didn’t also get the hype—the book didn’t really need a map for the caraval grounds.
4. The nickname that wasn’t. Julian kept referring to Scarlett as Crimson, even though no one has the name Crimson and it’s not even a shorter form of her name. I suppose the author wanted something more creative than Red but Julian could have teased Scarlett in a larger variety of ways. Him calling her Crimson got old, fast.
5. The count. Why was he so bad? What was his backstory? How did the father meet the count? What does the father get out of the marriage? How did he not see Scarlett the first time she saw the world in black and white when he was brought there specifically to track her down?
Despite its flaws, Caraval was a quick read because I actually wanted to see how the book would end. The sequel, Legendary, comes out in May. I may pick up a copy to see if it gets better when the protagonist switches.