CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber – Review

I received this book for free from the Publisher via Goodreads in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber – ReviewCaraval by Stephanie Garber
Series: Caraval #1
Published by Flatiron Books on January 31 2017
Genres: Young adult, Fantasy
Pages: 416
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher via Goodreads
Buy on Amazon

The nitty-gritty: More Alice in Wonderland than The Night Circus, Garber’s debut is full of atmosphere and magic, but left me confused and scratching my head as well.

I was so excited when I won a copy of Caraval from Goodreads, and I was even more excited when I got my act together and read it back in December, even though it has a January release date. Readers have been gushing about Caraval for months now, and I was eager to jump on the love-fest bandwagon. But although I found Garber’s writing lush and evocative, for me, the story itself was confusing and lacked focus. There are many things I loved about this book, which I’ll get to later, but story is one of the most important elements for me as a reader, and if the story is weak, it’s very hard for me to fully embrace a book. Ironically, I enjoyed the beginning of Caraval the most, before Scarlett, Tella and Julian leave home to join the mysterious Legend and his “players.” Once they fall down the metaphorical rabbit hole, though, the story started to go south for me.

Despite the sparkling cover that promises magic and illusion at every turn, Caraval starts out on a very dark note. We meet sisters Scarlett and Donatella—“Tella” for short—who live under the dark shadow of their controlling and abusive father. Scarlett is about to enter into an arranged marriage, and she is convinced this union will act as protection for the young and flighty Tella. Scarlett’s goal in life is to protect her sister, after all, and doing what her father says, even marrying someone she’s never met, will allow Scarlett and Tella to escape from under their brutal father’s thumb.

But just before her wedding day, Scarlett receives a letter from the mysterious Legend, the man behind Caraval, a travelling carnival-like place where a contest is held once a year. Scarlett has been writing to Legend for years, begging him to come to their secluded island of Trisda, and now Legend has finally responded, and he’s included two tickets to Caraval as well. Scarlett is tempted, but she knows that her upcoming marriage is the only way to escape her father. She should put the idea of Caraval behind her and do what’s right for her sister.

But Tella has other ideas. Before she knows it, Scarlett has been whisked off to Caraval against her will by Tella and a mysterious man named Julian, but once they arrive, Tella disappears. Scarlett is drawn into a competition where the winner will get to make one wish, and is doesn’t take long to find out that the game Legend has concocted is to find the missing Tella. Along with a group of other players, Scarlett is determined to win the game and be the first to find her sister. But things in Caraval are not always as they seem, and not everyone is telling the truth. The game is afoot, and the longer Scarlett plays, the more dangerous things become.

So let’s start with the things I enjoyed about Caraval. Garber’s writing is really good, and her descriptions of all the many marvels of Caraval brought this world to life. There is a scene when Scarlett first arrives where she’s standing on a balcony and looking out over the land of Caraval. That scene, and many others like it, had a dream-like quality that showed off Garber’s wonderful world-building skills. Perhaps my favorite element of the story was the magnificent dress that Scarlett puts on when she arrives at Caraval. The dress magically changes according to her mood and the situation she finds herself in, and I absolutely loved that idea.

Like I said earlier, the beginning of Caraval is very dark, as we’re introduced to the sisters who appear to be completely devoted to each other. Enter Scarlett’s father, a horrific man who uses his daughters against each other to keep them under his control. Garber writes frankly about domestic abuse, but wisely does so without too much emotion, making it all the more horrible. I hated seeing these girls in such a desperate situation, but I thought this storyline was necessary in order to move things forward.

Scarlett’s journey to Caraval itself was fraught with danger, and another favorite scene of mine describes the boat ride from Trisda to Caraval. Julian, a man who at first appears to be Tella’s boyfriend, accompanies Scarlett as they make their way across the turbulent and stormy sea. This is one of the first times you realize that you have no idea just who Julian is and what role he’s playing in the unfolding drama. He isn’t the nicest man, and I think Scarlett is also realizing that she may be deeply in trouble.

As far as characters go, Julian was probably my favorite. He changes dramatically throughout the story, and I honestly could not get a handle on him for the longest time. He seems to be the good guy one minute and the bad guy the next, but by the end he turned out to be one of the few characters I trusted, odd as that sounds.

But some of the other characters just didn’t work that well. Tella appears in the beginning and then disappears for the rest of the story—until the very end. She’s meant to be the object everyone in the game is searching for, but by cutting her out of the story, she only came across as two-dimensional to me. Likewise, the mysterious Legend felt too dreamlike and insubstantial. One of the biggest questions in the story is who is Legend? Rumors swirl around him and the characters whisper his name in awe, but his identity remains shrouded in secrecy.

The idea of “the game” is that people are invited to play each year, and it’s a big deal to be asked. Legend sets up a series of clues to follow, and the first to find the item is the winner. Helping Legend with this game are his players, actors who play different roles and try to make the game harder. And here’s where I had the biggest issue with this story. The “game” aspect was sketchy at best. Scarlett does indeed get a clue that leads her to the next and the next, but it kind of seemed pointless to me. I also expected there to be more fleshed out competitors who are also looking for Tella, but we only run into these cardboard-like characters sporadically during the story. It’s almost as if Scarlett was playing the game by herself. And no, this is nothing like The Hunger Games, by the way.

Unfortunately, the big reveal at the end completely let me down. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it left me even more confused than I already was. On the last few pages Garber reveals a twist that I’m sure is meant to act as a cliff hanger going into book two, but by that time I really didn’t care. I so wanted to love this book, and weirdly enough, I want to continue the series, if only to find out the answers to all my questions.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

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Posted January 23, 2017 by Tammy in 3 1/2 stars, Reviews / 23 Comments


23 responses to “CARAVAL by Stephanie Garber – Review

  1. Poorly-defined characters can truly sabotage even a well-crafted story, and IMHO there is no way that even a plot-driven story can stand on its own if the characters moving through it cannot support adequately. Nonetheless, it seems that – controversial as it was – this book did pique your curiosity, and that’s always a positive mark… 🙂
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    • Tammy

      Well in any case, I am curious to see what she does with this story. And I did like some of the characters, so I may just grab the sequel when it comes out:-)

  2. I’m always amazed when I finish a book and I’m not thrilled with it, but I still want to continue on with the series. That has to say something about the author’s writing right? This sounds interesting and I’ll probably grab it from the library if I ever see it there, but I’m glad I didn’t pre-order it. Does sound more Alice-like. Great review!
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    • Tammy

      After that ending I do want to see where things go next! We’ll see what my reading pile looks like when the sequel rolls around!

    • Tammy

      It has to be a very different Alice retelling for me to enjoy it. The only one I can think of that I loved was Christina Henry’s series.

  3. Ah, that’s too bad. The premise of this one never grabbed me (although I really enjoyed The Night Circus), but I was hoping the writing would make it worth checking out. Thanks for the helpful review!!

    • Tammy

      I think writers who do any kind of twist or something unexpected, especially at the end, are taking a big risk, IMO.

  4. I had been considering reading it but I think I’ll give it a miss now. The references to it being similar to Alice in Wonderland is enough to make me avoid it! It doesn’t sound like my kind of read now. Thanks very much for the detailed review which I’ve found really useful!
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  5. I can totally see all your points *nodding my head as I read your review* and yet I still really loved this. It did feel like a guilty pleasure in some ways and I’m not sure even why that is. There were puzzling elements, the story was a bit skimpy and I had issues with some of the ending scenes. But I loved the magic and the writing and it just lured me in. I had a different take on the ‘game’ but I can’t put here why because it would be a spoiler for anyone else reading the comments. Shame you didn’t enjoy it as much – I think I was bewitched or befuddled or something! No more wine for me.
    Lynn 😀

  6. Oh no, sorry to hear that the big reveal at the end was a letdown! Honestly, I’m super into books set at the circus but I think I’ve got to stick to the adult versions rather than the YA. They just seem to feature better developed characters, which is what I really care about in a book. I’m super intrigued by Menagerie by Rachel Vincent!
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  7. John Smith

    I like darkness, but abuse is probably not what I’d want to read about. But “Alice In Wonderland sounds” good!

  8. Penny Olson

    There has been a lot of hype surrounding this book, so your review is really useful to me. Given that there are some disappointing aspects, I may not make it a top priority to read Caraval. However, the good parts mean that I still want to read it at some point. Thanks.