This review contains spoilers
Oh boy. Where do I begin? From everything I read about Stephanie Garber‘s highly-acclaimed debut novel, Caraval, I expected it to be perfectly crafted with world-building and character development. And in the first few chapters of the book, I thought it would. But as the novel progressed, things went went south. Quickly.
In the novel, Scarlett and Donatella “Tella” Dragna live on the Isle of Trisda with their physically and emotionally abusive father, Governor Dragna. For years, Scarlett has been writing letters to the illusive Master Legend who runs an infamous game called Caraval. Her grandmother’s stories of magic, adventure, and romance captivated her so completely that she would do almost anything to play the game. That is until the year of her engagement to a duke she’s never met—her only way to get herself and her sister away from her father’s abuse.
Much to her surprise, Legend sends her three tickets to the game just two weeks before her wedding. She knows she can’t go if the wedding is to take place without incident. But her sister, Tella, has other plans. With the help of an attractive, braggadocious sailor named Julian, Tella successively subdues Scarlett and brings her to Legend’s personal island where she is thrust into the game, and to her surprise, finding Tella is the goal. She has five nights to find her and win the coveted wish Legend promises the winner.
To be fair, much of Garber’s writing suits the subject matter to a tee, complete with lush descriptions and heady imagery. She tactfully gives the novel’s protagonist, Scarlett, synesthetic abilities; every emotion she feels manifests itself in vivid color. This struck me as an inventive, compelling way for Garber to draw the reader into the magic, fear, and passion of Scarlett’s world.
Unfortunately, such a creative literary convention falls far short of salvaging the rest of the novel. Its only redeeming parts form bookends to a muddled story line marred by a shallow romance that must have been ripped from a cheap Harlequin romance. While the novel’s twists and turns are mildly entertaining at the start, Garber takes the surprises a little too far; they feel like punches, one after another, that pass along without any real analysis or second thought. Perhaps that was always the intention.
The world of Caraval is meant to be unpredictable and maddening with an unhinged master puppeteer pulling his players here and there in the name of adventure. But Garber does this through a protagonist who is far too uncertain and repetitive in her thoughts and insecurities. Oh, you can’t sleep in the same bed as a man who isn’t your fiance? Your dad is going to freak out when he finds out what’s happening? We know. You’ve only said it about 500 times now. Kthanksbye.
Instead of investing my empathy, I became dismissive of it all about half way through the book. There was quite a lot of eye-rolling if I’m going to be completely honest with you. The forbidden nature of the growing romantic tension between Scarlett and Julian is meant to be the glue holding the plot together; it’s meant to be passionate, slightly lustful, and mutually adoring.
But, it’s mostly just a series of tawdry moments strung together, most of them full of sighs, gasps, hands gripping lower backs and hips, meaningful stares, etc. I got to the point that if I ever saw another sentence describing Julian’s tanned muscles, I was going to throw the book across the room. Since their romance is such an integral part of the story, it needed to be so much more than what it appeared to be on paper.
Nevertheless, there is a moment in the novel’s final pages where it seems the two characters have a real moment of mutual development as Garber builds up to a cliffhanger for the next installment of the series. I can only hope that the second book will do the interesting subject matter more justice than the first novel did.