Book review: Caraval, Stephanie Garber

This book has been getting an unbelievable amount of hype, so I couldn’t resist picking Caraval up when I spotted it at the bookstore — lots of people I know and respect speak highly of it, and the premise is intoxicatingly delightful. Think of a Night Circus for young adult readers, a world in which characters are swept away in a series of magical events in a lush, beautiful environment that comes with a hidden sting. Totally my jam, right?

I really wanted to like this book. I genuinely did, and I struggled with why I didn’t like it so that I could articulate something more thoughtful than ‘yeah, this didn’t really work for me,’ especially after all the praise from readers with similar tastes. When numerous people are telling me a book is fantastic and I’m not feelin’ it, I like to explore why that is, and what the differences in our reading tastes and styles are, because there’s a clear divide.

This is not a bad book. I want to be clear. It’s a solid effort and it shows some real potential on Garber’s part. But it’s not quite the glittering triumph I was expecting — and perhaps it was the built-up expectations that pretty much guaranteed I wasn’t going to like it, as often happens. When everyone’s banging out about how amazing something is, there’s that contrary streak that starts looking for problems, right?

The premise of Caraval revolves around two sisters living with a creepy, gross, asshole gaslighting father, who’s an important regional official. Scarlett is about to get married and escape the hellish landscape of her home life, and she’s hoping she can take her sister Tella with her. Meanwhile, Tella remains obsessed with Caraval, a mysterious performance/game that comes with big stakes and potentially big rewards. Scarlett has repeatedly written to Caraval’s leader, Legend, begging him to come to the island…and after many years of silence, he’s responded with a pair of tickets.

Tella wants to run away to attend, Scarlett fears jeopardising her marriage, and when Tella is kidnapped, Scarlett is forced to go deep into Caraval after her, assisted by an enigmatic sailor. Together, they need to find Tella before it’s too late…and win the game, giving her a chance to win the ultimate prize: A wish.

So I like a lot of things about the setup here, right? But things start to go awry almost immediately because while I am an unabashed fan of purple prose, at times Caraval feels too heavyhanded and florid. It is really, really challenging to do elegant, beautiful, fancy, energising prose well and I’m not saying I’m an expert or get it right myself 10o percent of the time, but here, it sometimes feels too rich, overwrought, and cloying. As the lush environment of Caraval unfolds around us, the prose almost obscures it, because it’s just so over the top. That’s…not great.

The more serious not great thing, though, is that while the plot moves along at a quick and dynamic and engaging pace that definitely kept me rapt, something weird happened in the end. The last fifty pages just kind of…fell apart for me. I felt like certain plot elements were rushed, and therefore didn’t feel authentic and believable, and also ensured that I didn’t really feel any sort of connection with them. It was sort of ‘eh, well, I guess that happened,’ or in one instance, I had to flip back several pages to realise that something had happened, it was just so abrupt that I glossed over it.

Pacing and plotting are really, really hard. I realise that this should go without saying, but I just want to acknowledge it. They’re something I struggle with a lot, and early drafts of a lot of my fiction work definitely struggle with the problem of being reasonably well paced until the last chunk, in which a bunch of stuff is compressed, there’s a lot of infodumping, and things move so quickly that readers can’t keep up. My tendency to do that is something I’m very aware of (as is my tendency to overwrite in the beginning, which has led me to adopt the habit of throwing out the first fifty pages of anything I write), and so I tend to spot it pretty readily in other people’s work.

The other issue was that the ending of the book, while kind of emotionally satisfying, didn’t quite get there. And it was structured in a way that made it transparently obvious that this was a big for a sequel. This is a really common tactic so it’s not like it’s a unique sin, but it’s still irritating. It’s fine to leave stories open or to open the door to the rest of the world, making sequels possible. It’s another thing to use a cliffhanger, or to drop loaded hints, thereby making it crystal clear that this is only half (or one third) of a story. It should be a tale entire, and teasing complicated plot elements is fun, but heavyhanded winking is not to my taste as a reader.

This is a book that has a solid, interesting premise, and it could have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. I’ve read other projects Sarah Barley’s worked on and I’m a big fan of her editorial tastes and the way she works with authors, but this book feels like it just needed a little extra push to become extraordinary.

Image: Rose écarlate, Steluma, Flickr