I like words

Caraval | Thoughts

2 stars.

I was excited for Caraval, what with so much hype and so many fantastic reviews. The idea behind it is interesting - Scarlett enters into a game where her sister's life is at stake (or is it?) and everything could be both nothing or exactly like what it seems. 

Sounds mysterious, no? I thought so, too. And, for the most part, Stephanie Garber did manage to have me guessing at what was real and what could be just part of the game. Nothing is to be trusted, not the people we meet or the even the setting. It's a race against time to find the missing sister before the end of the game, and to escape back home to the abusive men controlling them...

Wait, what?

Here we have my first issue: unconvincing heroine.
Scarlett wants to come across as a strong and independent woman, yet on every single page she has some moment of doubt in her actions, or fear of who is watching, or some statement that she needs to get back to her father lest he beat her or her sister when he finds out they've left. To top it off, she repeatedly assures her companions and the reader that she "learned long ago not to trust her father" and how bad of a man he is...yet for some reason she trusts that this marriage he's arranged for her is with good intention? That there is nothing...NOTHING suspicious at all about the fact that he rips away pieces of her fiance's letters so she does not know his name or anything more detailed than the fact that he's a count? And wait a minute, she's EAGER to marry this man she's never met because he's made some vague promise to also take her sister in as well? 

Yea, that all sounds like a super idea and exactly what a fierce heroine protecting her sister would do - run off to be under another man's thumb and at his mercy. COME ON.

Next is really an issue I have with the entire YA genre...there is absolutely no consistency to the level of read.
I never know what to expect when I pick up a YA - am I going to get an intelligent, well-developed, well-written story with dimensional characters that hit all the right emotional points and pull me into their world? Or will I get a hastily done, sub-par level story thrown together on some pretty pages behind a pretty cover, not properly edited or even proofread? Just because publishers want to cash in on the YA craze does not mean that every middle-grade to adult level novel should be marketed in this bracket. 


Not only is it not fair to the reader, it is doubly unfair to authors and their word-children to market a book incorrectly. As a reader, I pick up YA expecting something close to adult level content and reading difficulty. So when I am given more of a middle-grade level read, I am frustrated and disappointed and unlikely to appreciate the work as I should because I'm judging it at a level over its head. Just because you throw in some death and kissing does not make up for the simple nature in which it is written. It's a case of playing dress-up in mom's makeup and heels...*side note* Perhaps I ought to start a bookshelf dedicated to these cases; there have been several in the last couple years.

Lastly, and most unforgivable in my eyes, is poor editing.
Not in the grammatical sense, but in plot consistency and story structure. There are several holes, but the most obvious one to me is in the end when Julian calls Scarlett by her name, rather than the nickname he's given her, and she points it out:

"You've never called me Scarlett before."

Um, except he actually has, three times by my count. Seems like a small error, and if Garber wasn't so intent on spelling EVERYTHING out for the reader, Scarlett wouldn't have commented. BUT SHE DID, and here I am, ranting about how I know what Garber tried to do with this moment, but her editor failed in helping pull off the execution. 

We're beat over the head with the same idea over and over and over...Scarlett doesn't trust Julian because she really doesn't know him, but he's handsome, but she can't stay in the same room as him because *gasp* scandal! and what if her father finds out - he'll call off the wedding to the count, oh my! But, oh, when Julian touches her arm she's never been touched like that before! *dramatic sigh* But she needs him to find her sister, but wait she can't trust him he seems to know too much about this place...We got it the first ten times, thanks. Again, I could be coming down harsh because I expected a higher reading level when I opened Caraval, but I think editing should have tightened up the plot significantly.

Due mostly to the repetition and editing issues, I skim-read many pages. I never felt connected to Scarlett or any of the other characters, and I waited the entire book to learn more about the curious trait she has in which she experiences feelings as colors. 

"Shades of the rich ruby love she’d felt during the game mixed with hues of deep-indigo hurt, turning everything just a little bit violet."

As I said at the beginning, this story and the ideas behind it sounded so interesting...give me a complicated villain and let's explore all the sides of him, give me a better reason why he has singled Scarlett and her sister out, tell me more about why emotions and experiences coat her vision in shades of color. I love romance! Give me an untrustworthy romantic interest, throw in some tension and mystery and I'll smile over it all. There is a pretty heady scene where Julian makes a sacrifice in order to save Scarlett the full consequence of a bad decision, and afterward she is connected to him in a way that allows her to feel what he feels...what! Tell me more about that, let's explore. But no, we never go any deeper than surface level, always turning back to Scarlett's annoying fears and declarations of wishing only to protect her sister.

To end on a positive note, as I'm wont to due when needing to detail out the negatives, I will say that I enjoy Garber's writing style. "Purple prose" is one of those love it or hate it styles, and I usually lean towards loving it. If you want to remain firmly on the side of literal, then sure, statements such as:

"He tasted like midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue."

"Inside the house, violin music, richer than the darkest chocolate, started playing."

will seem nonsensical. But if you stop taking it literal and start taking it magical, you'll find you know exactly what midnight tastes like, how rich the dark chocolate sound of a violin can be. For all of the flaws, these glimmers of magic were shining points that kept me reading.

"She imagined loving him would feel like falling in love with darkness, frightening and consuming yet utterly beautiful when the stars came out." 

Alas, this is goodbye, Caraval. I'll remember you for all the things you could have been.

Caraval Review
Virginia DeFeo