Scarlett Dragna is one of two sisters raised on the island of Trisda in the Conquered Isles. Her father has a solid hold on everything in her life except for Caraval, a magical game where anything seems possible…
Caraval is Stephanie Garber’s first young adult novel published in January 2017 and has received a lot of tumblr hype with book blogs. For anyone who fans of Alice in Wonderland or The Night Circus, Garber manages to channel and fuse elements of both stories into Caraval. I have to confess, I went against solid and sound advice and judged the book by its cover. But come on, I’m sure your eyes thought it was pretty too.
Along with a dazzling cover, Garber has a visually splendid written style. Stephanie Garber loves to indulge in description, and the world of Caraval and the Conquered Isles really benefit from this. Garber knows how to accommodate the imagination and set it up with a five star room! There were few or next to no moments in the novel where I didn’t have a clear image of a scene or character, many of which were vivid and marvelous like the roundabout of roses or Nigel and his prophetic tattoos. Garber has sold Caraval as the perfect bookworm destination – her world is solidly built through her strength in description.
Something I really liked was Scarlett’s malleable dress which changed design and colour at its own will. Although the author clearly enjoys herself describing appearances, I often felt that she put too much importance in the details which made my attention waver in parts. Also, Garber’s description could be very figurative at times like a kiss she described ‘tasting of midnight’ – Does anyone know what this tastes like? I felt those particular types of metaphor didn’t add anything to the novel, and were too airy fairy.
It’s great to write of beautiful things, but I won’t be captivated if there’s no depth in plot or character. I feel like Garber’s description-heavy style would better suit poetry or shorter fiction. Yes, Caraval is a setting a reader can easily lose themselves in, but it can also frustrate them too.
There were quite a lot of logic gaps that weren’t explained. As it says on the cover Caraval is ‘only a game’ and nothing is real, yet certain actions in the plot have permanent consequences – there was no explanation for these moments. It was very difficult to process whether Caraval was entirely illusion and artifice or whether it was actually a magical location. Garber made all these fantastical rules about her universe and never tried to back them up logically. How did Caraval come about? Why is it the only place that is closest to magical? There were no hints of explanation. One example which really annoyed me was Scarlett being described as seeing emotions and other concepts in colours around her. There was never any suggestion that Scarlett had synesthesia or that she was magical herself, which would have justified these descriptions throughout the book.
I felt that the plot began well, I loved the dynamic between Scarlett, Tella, and their father. The principle of one sister misbehaving and the other being punished was fresh and interesting. As the story progressed it became incredibly convoluted with Garber writing herself out of tricky logic situations – I felt that she took the easy route. I would have enjoyed Caraval more with better context.
On the flip side of this, I felt like Garber didn’t give her readers enough credit. Often her sentences would go along like this ‘Scarlett read the next clue, because she really loved her sister and wanted to find her’, being very expositional. Actions to an extent should speak for themselves, and the reader should be given things to think over instead of being spoon-fed information.
Although the characters in the novel were garbed in glamour I struggled to empathise with them. Donatella was bold and sexual, which was great to see in YA but her brash and rude nature erased any sympathy I had for her and Scarlett’s venture to find her. Scarlett felt 2D with either two intentions: kiss boy or find sister. Her interests beyond these two things weren’t scoped out. The relationship between two certain characters was very stilted – no matter how many words you use, you can’t convince me that a five day affair is the deepest of loves or that a romance could be untainted after a dozen lies.
I credit Garber for having the dedication to write and get this novel published, but I personally feel it needs a lot more work. There were some original ideas, but I don’t think they held as much weight as they could have if the writing quality was better. Sadly, I’m underwhelmed.
Header Image: Matthew Payne