I recently read Caraval, one of the most hyped YA Fantasies of 2018. I have mixed thoughts, but ultimately did enjoy it.
First off: Garber does beautiful prose. The most gorgeous I’ve ever read.
Contains spoilers, duh.
“The crooked halls of La Serpiente smelled like the end of the night, sweat and fading fire smoke mixed with lingering breath from words whose ghosts still haunt the air.”
“She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.”
*sighs like a lovestruck schoolgirl*
Garber’s way with words painted every stroke of detail of Caraval before my mind’s eye. I saw, smelt, and heard everything. The way she weaves colours and emotions and metaphors is phenomenal. Just from reading this made me a better writer — damn, I took fistfuls of pages from this book. Caraval is a world of its own and its creation in my head blew me away. The pseudo-Venetian setting, the gorgeous smattering of colours — *sighs again*
The characters are unusual, both in a positive and negative sense, and surprisingly unpredictable given how flat and hapless Scarlett portrays Tella and how Scarlett herself comes across as suppressed and dull due to restraints by societal standards. Garber has me feeling a flurry of emotions for her characters: it started off as intrigued sympathy for Scarlett, controlled by her father, fearful of the future. But she also begins to show a more selfish side of herself — judgemental of Donatella when it sounded like she has a man with her in her bedroom; Scarlett cutting off her nose to spite her face by leaving Julian in their bedroom to stay out in the corridor (but then also citing societal propers about opposite sexes sharing rooms? Surely being in the corridor alone is worse); showing her entitlement by demanding Nigel the fortune teller answer the questions he “owe[s]” her — and I begin to lose sympathy for Scarlett and get quite irritated. You can argue she’s playing Caraval more for herself at this point, which is not an issue, but she continues to put on the pious mask of righteousness that she’s her sister’s saviour — even though she’s forgetting about Donatella more and more frequently.
Several times during reading, I didn’t know if I wanted the characters to succeed or just scream at them for dodgy decisions. The torrent of sympathy and rage and intrigue meant I couldn’t stop reading despite my internal screams. I admit, there were many moments when I hated Scarlett and Tella, especially when Scarlett just dillydallies so badly on several occasions and comes across as just so infuriatingly thick — but it was such an emotional rollercoaster I soon found myself rooting for them moments later (and then would start screaming at them again).
On several occasions, Scarlett had shown to not be that bright and quite naive — irritatingly so. Despite being told Caraval was just a game, she believes everything was real and tries to rationalise things (and fails). Despite being told information has a price, she doesn’t hesitate to spill her secrets without utilising it as a bargain — like when Julian is injured and she is repeatedly rebuffed when trying to find out how and where the injury occurred. And yet when Julian asked — once — what she saw in the tunnels beneath Castillo, she spills her guts immediately. She talks about “a lifetime of mistrust” and yet doesn’t consider lying to him — or indeed even withholding one tiny detail! Her coming to that realisation afterwards doesn’t make me buy that lampshade hanging. Similarly, she was stupidly honest with everyone that asks her about Donatella, still ignoring the fact it’s a game AND she can’t trust anyone with information. By 185 pages in, I was so frustrated with Scarlett and her stupidity I wanted to punch her. Midway, she regains her intelligence, managing to relax her way out of the panic crushing room in the tunnels — only to ignore Julian’s advice (despite his being correct all this time!) and impulsively run after Tella’s voice, almost falling to her own doom.
There were other frustrating moments. The heart clue was obvious to me it was Dante from the moment Nigel mentioned it. For some reason, Scarlett was wholly convinced it was Julian despite already knowing he wasn’t as bad as she (very judgementally) thought he was.
Then Scarlett goes on to blame others — somehow it was Aiko’s fault Scarlett doesn’t know or won’t tell her true desire and didn’t find out in detail what the price for the second dress was. Although she’s fancied herself as the makeshift mother between her and Tella, Scarlett is hypocritically childish and selfish, although I couldn’t blame her entirely as she never had a childhood after her mother disappeared.
Halfway through the book, we learn conveniently Scarlett had “always “ seen her emotions in colour even though it has never been mentioned until that point. This caught me out and I couldn’t see its significance, but props that it was threaded throughout the rest of the book rather than never being mentioned again. Having said that, its significance was never revealed. Same for the buttons. She’d been collecting them during Caraval? Really?? That was news to me.
I’d suspected Julian was Legend but didn’t have enough clues as to why. It was nice to see Dante and Julian’s roles tying together — although disappointingly predictable to learn nobody truly dies and they were both Caraval players. I’d hoped one of them was Legend, there to see the game on the front row, but we never see him. In fact, there isn’t an antagonist to the book at all, which I found odd, and I think that took away from Scarlett’s desperation to find Tella. When Scarlett believes Tella’s life is at stake and yet nothing in Caraval is to be believed and nobody dies for real, what stakes are there really?
It made no sense Julian couldn’t jump with her off the carousel. There was the cliched line of “there’s no time [to explain more]!” to maintain mystery, but if he’d jumped with her — and he had no reason not to, beyond plot demand, and Scarlett had said “We need to jump” — there would be plenty of time to explain. But the plot demands a slow release of information. How convenient.
I became more sympathetic with Scarlett again when she remained the sole, sane person in Legend’s game, but oh, how I hated Tella at that point. The whole thing from start to finish was Scarlett trying to foil Darwinism, to stop a stupid naive little girl from getting herself killed (I feel this line could apply to both Scarlett and Tella, actually). Watching every interaction of Tella being too stupid to realise she was being manipulated and blinded by lust just made me angrier and angrier. Seeing Legend’s sadism and reality finally hitting Tella’s stupid face couldn’t be more satisfying. Having said that, although I felt nothing for Tella’s death, watching the grief from Scarlett’s point of view did make my cold dead heart a bit sad.
It was a moment of triumph for Scarlett when Tella’s death spurred her bravery to rise against her father’s chains. Seeing that growth throughout the story, from abused withdrawn puppet to tentatively independent adventurer to headstrong woman was very satisfying. It was even more satisfying to know Tella is actually more intelligent than Scarlett gave her credit for and Tella had been the loving selfless sister from the beginning. It was just Scarlett’s bias and reluctance to let Tella grow up, effectively making her sound childish and helpless (to the point where I hated Tella!) that gave Scarlett so much grief.
As an add-on, I have to say I’m not a fan of the romance — or any romance, in general, to be honest, but I did like Julian and Scarlett’s relationship, how his light manner contrasted with her deadpan boring personality. I was sad when he died, but he knew what he was getting into. Tella was the innocent sacrifice.
But, like I said, no death is permanent. Nobody actually died in the game. There are no stakes. I do so hate magical deaths with loopholes, as it makes deaths not worth worrying about. It’s no stake if you can magically deux ex machina your way out.
Overall, I did enjoy reading it for the beautiful, if somewhat purple, prose, the gorgeous setting, and the vivid scenes painted before my very eyes. The characters are frustrating to a fault and, after effectively being cheated as a reader of anything at stake, I’m not particularly invested to see where the sequel takes the hypocritical Scarlett or the annoying Tella (or the unremarkable Julian or the non-existent Legend). Having said that, I do so love Garber’s prose-writing so I think I’ll get Legendary when I have the chance.
Verdict: 3 stars. Enjoyed. Wouldn’t read again.
This review will be posted on Goodreads.