Review: Caraval

I put a hold on this book at my library in early January before it was even released to the public, and it was already so popular at that time that it took me until last week to receive and read a copy. Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is commonly compared to The Night Circus, but you won’t see that comparison here because I haven’t gotten around to reading The Night Circus yet, even though I have a nice copy waiting on my shelf. I have, however, read Caraval now, and I have a lot to say.

caravalAbout the book: Scarlett and her sister have always wanted to attend Caraval, where anyone who has received a ticket is invited to participate in the performance. Their abusive and controlling father, however, would not allow it when the chance finally arises, so they don’t even ask for permission. Tella wants to sneak away, but Scarlett is more concerned about the danger. Tella has found a sailor passing through the isles who will take them to Caraval on Legend’s (the Caraval Master’s) private island. Scarlett refuses to go, but soon finds herself kidnapped and carted off to the show anyway. She still has the choice of only observing even after she arrives on Legend’s island, but her sister has gone missing and Scarlett is afraid that if she doesn’t participate she won’t find Tella–or will find her and be unable to retrieve her–in time to get back home for Scarlett’s arranged marriage. The sailor who helped kidnap Scarlett and bring her to the island with Tella seems to know an awful lot about Caraval, and despite regular disagreements, the two stick together as Scarlett is thrust into the game–and the search for her missing sister, who is the object of this year’s performance.

Although I can’t compare Caraval to The Night Circus (I really need to correct the mistake of putting that one off), I can tell you I found several Alice in Wonderland similarities. Caraval is full of odd little twists of reality and some direct correlations (a mad hatter, for instance, although this one’s not a rabbit). It’s a whimsical place, and Scarlett perceives things in strange ways, relating tangible objects and colors to smells, feelings, general impressions, and everything in between. The game takes place at night, and no one seems to be whom they claim. Everything is whimsical and magical and strange. This atmospheric quality is one of the best aspects of the novel

“Scarlett imagined this to be the sort of place where a person could be lost and never found.”

Although magic was clearly apparent throughout the story, the real intrigue lied with the characters. I kept trying to guess who Legend would turn out to be, and who Julian was outside of the game, and why Tella and Scarlett had become the main focus of the game–those little points of character intrigue were really what kept me reading.

Unfortunately, I do not like Tella at all. Scarlett’s a bit of a weak character herself, but Tella bothers me more. Scarlett is so devoted to finding and saving Tella, and Tella can’t even be bothered to listen to what Scarlett has to say. Tella steals Scarlett’s things, gets her into trouble, helps kidnap her for Caraval–potentially sabotaging the marriage that Scarlett is on board with–and lots of other things that she does behind Scarlett’s back that would spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it. And yet in the scenes where the sisters are together and conversing, it’s always Scarlett who thinks, “Okay, I love her and it’s possible that despite everything I’ve seen and been through that she’s the one who’s right,” when Tella apparently would never give her that same respect and consideration. I don’t feel that the fact that these characters are sisters is enough to explain the level of love the narration talks about–I needed to see why they loved each other, and the only demonstration Tella shows of love for her sister is something terribly destructive that Tella also benefits from; in the end, I didn’t understand what was lovable about Tella at all, which took me out of the story a bit since Scarlett’s worry for her missing sister is supposed to be the driving force of the novel. Tella just would not listen, and that’s my number one pet peeve about supposedly lovable characters.

The clues to the game also confused me a bit. At first I thought it was odd that Scarlett seemed so worried about her ability to win because people kept helping her and the clues seemed to be tailored specifically to her experience. Later she speculated that everyone was given different clues, which cleared up the specialization of them a bit, but they still felt…random. Like something that happened in her regular wanderings would suddenly be perceived as a clue without her really having to work for anything or figure anything out. Honestly, Scarlett doesn’t really do much at all in this book other than decide to walk here or there, or talk to this person or that person; she’s just whisked along for the ride as things happen to her and then she thinks about it all. There are a few notable exceptions, though. She’s not completely useless. As I said, it wasn’t Scarlett I had the biggest problem with in this book, it was her sister.

And yet, I kept reading. I really wanted to know Legend’s story. First of all, I liked his name. Lately I’ve been easily annoyed by characters whose names give away their personalities or place in the story (the Darkling, the Beast, the White Witch, etc.) but Legend doesn’t lean “bad” or “good,” it’s just mysterious and powerful and it actually sounds like something a child could be named at birth before anyone knows whether he will turn out to be evil. (This is not to say that Legend is evil, or even good. That’s still up for debate at the end of the novel. It’s just more common in my experience for evil characters to sport evil names.) This is a book of identity and change, and even the magic reflects that.

“Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I liked this book, but not as much as I expected. I think it was a little over-hyped. I’m actually a bit worried about my reception of The Night Circus now after hearing it lumped in with Caraval so often, but also I’m more interested in finally getting around to that one to see what I think. I am probably invested enough in this story to read the sequel when it comes out, even though I think it’ll focus a lot more on Tella and I liked her less. I’m hoping a sequel will help develop the aspects of this first book that gave me pause, while also keeping the sense of mystery that pushed me through this one. I enjoyed reading it, and Caraval does make for an intense journey, but I don’t think this one will be joining any of my favorites lists.

Further recommendations:

  1. The writing style of Caraval reminded me a lot of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, first book Cinder. This set is a futuristic sci-fi retelling of several well-known fairy tales, but there is a bit of magic involved and I think the characters of Caraval would get along well with Meyers’ protagonists.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading another magical fantasy novel, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, the first book in the Magicians Trilogy. I actually also watched the entire first season of its new(ish) TV show, which is partially why I’ve been slacking off on posting this week. Oops. :/ Anyway, I’m already organizing my thoughts on these eccentric characters and their crazy journey through magic school and beyond, so I’ll be back to posting more regularly.

Have you read anything lately that’s completely sucked you in to another world? Or something you wanted to pull you in that failed to live up to expectations?


The Literary Elephant


5 thoughts on “Review: Caraval”

  1. I super agree about Tella! I was just not a fan of her. Especially at the end? While I will be interested to see her story in the second one (where I’m assuming the story is going), I’m hoping she does some major changing. And I wasn’t super super into Scarlett either although I enjoyed her far more. XD great review!


    1. Thank you!
      I felt exactly the same about Tella and Scarlett, especially at the end through all of the big reveals! Tella’s part in the Caraval game did not redeem her character for me at all. But I’m also interested to see how she’ll develop in the sequel, which I agree, will probably focus more directly on Tella. I’m really curious to see more of Legend in the sequel, too.


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