Synopsis: Remember, it’s only a game…
Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.
Yup, that’s me. Scarlett Dragna, main character of the YA hit Caraval. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation. If everysinglethingthathappenedinthiswholebook was anything to go by, it was through a combination of pointless lying, constant embarrassment, obsession with Some Guy, a big act of caring about a younger sister despite very little indication of that being true, unrelenting drama about a dumb wedding, repetitive interactions, weird descriptions, gender-based generalizations, and insanely personal info-dumps about emotional happenings from the past.
(insert elegant bow here) And that, my dear friends, is my Scarlett Dragna impression. Thank you. Yes, thank you. Oh, please, stop with the standing ovation! I’m just like all of you. Except I possess such bitterness and have such a grasp of the future that I wrote a character description at the 25% mark, and god did it hold up.
Yup. You guessed it. I didn’t like my most anticipated book of the year.
(What a surprise! you probably all chant in unison.)
I almost felt guilty about writing a negative review about this book – because it’s about to be damn negative – but then I remembered it’s THIS BOOK’S FAULT. It marketed its damn self as a young adult The Night Circus. It must take some serious goddamn gonads to look at a masterpiece, essentially magic with a front and back cover, and go, “Yeah. My book is just like that.” Spoiler alert: it’s really, really not. And now I want to cry and reread The Night Circus and cry again.
Oh, God, this review is going to be long. My bullet point list of notes alone is long. And I am putting away fruit snacks like nobody’s business, so I’ve got enough sugar in my system to sustain a lengthy burst of anger. Strap in, everybody! (Note from later: I sugar-crashed when I was almost done this review. But it did last me through most of it.) (Note from even later: As I edit this review to post on my blog, I’m again eating fruit snacks! Serendipity or an addiction? You decide.)
All I want is a good setting. All those times I said I just want a good character
to love and settle down with, I think – and relish this rare gift of a moment – I think I was wrong. I think I care most about settings. (Hence why books with magnificent ones get five star ratings no matter what.) And thus, it is my curse to eternally pick up every book that is compared to The Night Circus.
This book, on the other hand, does not have a good setting. It’s confusing: everything that seems solid is gone back on later. Nothing is real. That doesn’t lead to a good setting. But I’ll talk more about the constant, piece of sh*t cop-outs later in this review. It lacks the strong descriptions that a setting literally needs. It doesn’t feel magical at all. (More on that later, too.) But above all, it’s not goddamn GROUNDED.
Haha. Now I’m thinking about that Bo Burnham bit where he says “art is a lie, nothing is real.” It’s making me feel a lil better. Thank you, my favorite person of all time forever. Maybe I’ll go watch his special for the bajillionth time.
Anyway, as I was saying. This. Is. Not. Grounded. In Round 14 of 3947234829 why The Night Circus is better than this book and the latter should never have been compared, TNC takes place in our world. Yeah. The author (presumably) realized 1) maybe we need a little bit of magic! And 2) she couldn’t create one of the greatest settings of all time while also establishing a fantasy world. It would have weakened the whole book.
But Stephanie Garber did NOT make the same choice. Instead, we’re unceremoniously dumped into a world where there are islands and colonizing empires and that CLASSIC YA trope of using clunky terms to differentiate the world from the real one (like Hot Season, because they don’t have WORDS FOR THE SEASONS). Even more fun, during this book characters travel between countries/colonies/islands/empires/I have no idea, and the reader has NO GODDAMN CLUE WHAT IS GOING ON.
Alright, I think I’ve talked about the setting for too long. I see that now. But this is an UNFORGIVABLE OFFENSE, OK?
We’re introduced to a world’s worth of characters here, and this book achieves quite a feat – they all manage to be either flat, boring, or both! Yaaaaay! I’m totally ready to try to pretend to feel emotionally connected to these goons for 400 pages!!
First: Scarlett. Cannot believe we were trapped inside the head of the most boring character of all time throughout what was supposed to be a suspenseful thrill ride! (But, obviously, was not.) She’s easily embarrassed, obsessed with propriety, falls in pretty much instalove with Julian because he’s hot. Lies all the time because poor widdle gal is embarrassed of something or other about herself. Super weak. Constantly questioning her own reasoning and letting others make decisions for her. Tries to act like she’s a protective older sister, but, speaking as a protective older sister, she doesn’t give much of a sh*t about family when she’s staring into Julian’s eyes or literally sucking his fingers.
But then we get into a whole different type of characters: Those who, by the end, we know NOTHING. ABOUT. Tella, Julian, Legend. We’re given descriptions of them that are gone back on, returned to, and gone back on again. Nothing is real. The whole thing is confusing and an absolute waste of energy. I came SO GODDAMN CLOSE to DNFing this book because it has about 100 twists and none of them make sense. I wanted to shake myself out of a nightmare. What the hell was going on for 400 pages?!
Beyond that, they’re boring and I don’t want to talk about them. And so were the “villains.” Scarlett and Tella’s dad is literally ruthless for no reason. His wife left him and now he plays psychological games of abuse with his daughters. There’s a moment where he essentially tries to get his daughter’s fiancé to rape her. And for what reason? It makes no sense. No sense at all. He slaps a random girl across the face at one point, murders some random dude. I don’t know what excuse to make for that except that this book is sloppy.
Word to the wise…if you haven’t read this book, you may want to skip this section. Even the stuff I don’t mark as spoilers may be somewhat spoilery. I’ll try, kind of.
So this book centers on Caraval, the supposedly wonderful setting I’ve already moped about for way too long. Caraval attracts a bunch – well, an unknown number of people, and is supposed to be a scavenger-hunt-style game. Somehow, though, in spite of the bajillion people who actually give a sh*t competing against her, Scarlett just stumblesinto the goddamn clues.
Here’s my world famous (I’ve become famous since the beginning of this review, right?) Scarlett impression, coming back to show you what following her through this shindig feels like. “Oh, this terrible poem-slash-cheat sheet I was unceremoniously given says I have to ‘earn’ the next clue! It’s probably just this thing I randomly picked up along my travels with zero fanfare! Or maybe it has something to do with a situation I just stumbled into! Doesn’t matter which choice I make, somehow it’ll be manipulated into being the right one!” Where are the stakes?!
I also feel like 80% of this is just us listening to boring old Scarlett being like, “Omg, I think Julian is lying to me. Whatever shall I do?! I don’t trust him!!! I just want to kiss his face off!!!” Etc, etc. And despite spending ALL OF HER TIME with him, she’s never just like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsswAbB725o
Also, this review is spoiler free so I’m not going to talk about specific plot points. But dumb stuff happens, my friends. Severely, eye-gougingly, unbelievably dumb stuff.
And this book is just one cop out after another. Weird choice to write a supposed ““““high fantasy”””” book without wanting to define your world at all! Everything that is said definitively is gone back on, so many conflicting descriptions of Caraval are given that I couldn’t summarize them if I tried, and on top of all that, we don’t even get answers at the Big Reveal.
This book is written…weirdly. For one thing, Scarlett, in order to remind us of her special snowflake status, sees emotion in COLOR. It is straight up so annoying. Here are a handful of my least favorite instances, for your reading
1. “She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.”
2. “Periwinkle curiosity” (I don’t know why I hate that one so much. I just really do.)
3. “It would have been a mistake to kiss him, yet she felt … disappointed. It came in cool shades of forget-me-not blue, which wrapped around her like evening fog, making her feel hidden enough to acknowledge that she wanted to experience more of Caraval’s pleasures than she would ever have admitted out loud.”
Did you notice anything besides how irritating that quirk is? Numbers 1 and 3 are pretty much the DAMN SAME. What the hell?!
The language in this book isn’t always AWFUL, it’s just…weird. Every sentence is very overwrought. Like, not everything has to have figurative language. Here’s my favorite example: The worst poem I have ever, ever read is in this book. And I’m an English major who hates poetry. Would you like to read it?
“This girl was last seen with Legend.
If you catch her, you shall catch him as well.
Of course, you may have to venture through Hell.
But if you succeed you may find yourself rich.
This year’s winner will be granted one wish.”
I do have to give this book some props, because this is the first time I have ever had to shut a book for 90 seconds in order to hysterically laugh. No one ever told me that the word “rich” rhymes with “wish”! Hahahaha. This poem should be used to teach the importance of using meter.
I haven’t had the absolute privilege of writing one of these sections in a while! It’s like a homecoming. An unpleasant, unwanted homecoming. Like if my home was a festering swamp, or a city sewer system.
Here’s one beautiful example – seriously, it’s like a gift from the reviewing gods: “Then she did her best to explain the truth about death and Caraval. Tella didn’t know the particulars as to how it worked. It was one of those things that people didn’t really talk about.” See what I mean?! Instead of the author coming up with an actual defined magic system, she just says “Oh, um…well the character doesn’t know. There’s that!” The world has no definition and neither does the magic. In other words, some of the sloppiest fantasy I’ve ever had the privilege to read.
Plus, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on with hooking up with your family members’ sloppy seconds. I don’t want to talk about it because I’m grossed the f*ck out. I just want to let everyone know I’m SUPER not a fan.
There’s also a fun moment where Scarlett lectures her sister on how “You can’t be in love with someone you just met,” even though a) she fell in luuurve with Julian in less than 5 days and b) she was planning on marrying someone she’d never met, and thought she could tell he was a good guy THROUGH LETTERS. So dumb.
And then maybe my favorite moment of all: When a fortune teller tells Scarlett she wants “love and protection,” her reaction is even worse than I would have expected from a character I hate. She says, “Isn’t that what every girl wants?” WHAT. THE. DAMN. HELL. No! No, not every girl, you piece of shit! It’s fine to want that, but some girls want adventure and knowledge and friendship and bravery and the ability to look out for their damn selves! What the actual f*ck?!
Bottom line: I can’t believe how much I hated this book. (Or how long this review is.) Boring setting, boring characters, boring plot. Overall confusing language and decisions and reveals. I honestly wish I had never read this book.