I was so sure I was going to love this book. A carnival/circus-like story that’s been marketed to fans of The Night Circus? A stunning cover design? ALL THE HYPE? What could go wrong?
Apparently many things. But let me get to the parts I did like.
1. Caraval had dark fantasy and mystery set in an odd, curious world. I’m all about the weird, whimsical places and while it didn’t showcase it enough, it was my favourite part of the story.
2. I liked that I couldn’t trust anyone in Caraval. I was suspicious the whole time and that’s always fun.
3. It focused on family relationships. Sort of. It kinda got blurry when the romance showed up.
You might want to grab a snack for this one, because it might take a while.
Here’s what I didn’t like:
Scarlett is your stereotypical main character that will do everything she’s told not to do. She’s also incredibly naïve. Her abusive father sets up an arranged marriage for her with a count she’s never met. She only has letters to go by, which pretty much says all the right thingsand she’s certain he must be this amazing man who will save her from her dad. Yeah. HE arranged it remember?! Despite her claims of love for her sister, Scarlett often criticizes Donatella. I had to laugh when Scarlett was horrified her sister fell in love with someone she just met when she did the exact same thing. I’m pretty sure our dear MC is also in heat because when she’s not ogling at guys she’s thinking about sex with every physical contact. No really, a hand on the back and she was flushed. There was actually a scene where she got high on licking fingers and it was so Twilight-esque I cried.
Donatella, Scarlett’s sister is missing for most of the story. She’s slut shamed by her own sister and acts as a plot device until a twist at the end of the book. Her relationship with Scarlett is the most messed up one I’ve seen. Each sister constantly spouts how much they love each other and yet they’re also both so quick to blame, criticize, and ignore each other’s wishes. So touching.
Then there’s Julian, the male lead who is just oozing with sex appeal that his eyelashes were “as cool and seductive as a slice of shade in the Hot Season” yes, that’s a direct quote. Lashes are seductive. BUT WAIT. What about his muscles?! Don’t worry, it’s mentioned so often that you’ll just fan yourself because wow, how hot is this guy? Oh and there’s more! You’ll get a “silver rush of excitement” because he apparently tastes like “midnight and wind, and shades of rich brown and light blue” – I can already see this as a bookish candle. Seriously though, midnight and wind? The guy had blood and alcohol on his face. Just saying.
All the main characters are attractive and you can’t possibly miss it because Scarlett loves pointing them out. Our MC is also drop dead gorgeous (surprise, surprise). I just don’t get it. Why don’t we get more characters that look like real people? Not saying attractive people aren’t real, but why does that even matter? Someone just give me a complex, fleshed out character without drooling at their beauty please!
There was the issue of physical abuse with the father and the two sisters but it made NO SENSE when they tried explaining it. Their dad was a kinder man before their mom left but now he’s beating them up, selling them, and not caring if they’re raped? OH, he’s doing it all to protect them!
I also love how the whole thing was supposed to be a game but we really only focus on Scarlett and Julian. The other ‘players’ were so minor they only got a line or two. This whole event was so hyped up you’d think other players would have brought more to the story.
TL;DR: none of the characters were interesting and none of them made me care.
The (lack of) World-building
Everyone is told Caraval is all just a game, that nothing you see should be trusted. While that’s fine in itself, readers never actually find out if the place itself had magic. There are questionable things that happen and I would have really liked at least a line confirming whether or not it was magic. How did it REALLY work?
This is the biggest reason I couldn’t stand Caraval. The writing was littered with ridiculous sentences that had me wondering how anyone thought this was a great idea during the editing process.
Descriptions cater to fans of purple prose:
From the top of the largest peak an iridescent blue waterfall streamed down like melted peacock feathers, disappearing into the ring of sunrise-tinted clouds that pirouetted around the surreal isle.
…the crooked halls of La Serpiente smelled like the end of the night, sweat and fading fire smoke mixed with lingering breath from words whose ghosts still haunted the air.
And then there’s the colour vomit:
A smoke-ginger prickle of discomfort.
She felt five different shades of berry-coloured foolish.
A tingle of periwinkle curiosity prickled her senses.
Turning her discouragement into the type of dreary yellow hopelessness that choked out life.
Something about him made her feel perilous shades of silky black.
Sour-shades of yellow-green made her stomach roil with trepidation.
Scarlett’s horror spiked, turning shades of quicksilver.
She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue.
Ochre shades of uneasy.
Bitter yellow puddle of dread in her stomach.
Shades of the rich ruby red love she’d felt during the game mixed with hues of deep-indigo hurt, turning everything just a little bit violet.
She felt… disappointed. It came in cool shades of forget-me-not blue.
As a bonus, I also created a mini dictionary for most of the colours defined in the book:
Gold-blue sparks – the colour of childhood dreams
Red – the colour of hearts and blood and shame
Red – the colour of love and heartache and other things both virtuous and vile
Light brown – the colour of caramel and liquid amber lust
Brownish green – the colour of forgotten memories, abandoned dreams, and bitter gossip
Pale-orchid – colour of infatuation
Colour of dark fairy tales – black ice covered with tarnished gold script
Flat black – the colour of failure and funerals
Brilliant orange-red – the colour of bravery
Periwinkle – the colour of sweet dreams and happy endings
Hemlock-green – the colour of poison and terror
But wait, there’s more nonsense:
When she was happy, the world turned shimmery.
A passionate sky made of melting lemons and burning peaches.
Something acidic and moldy and burnt bubbled up through Scarlett’s throat – the taste of death.
The world tasted like lies and ashes.
It was also pointed out that Scarlett “saw flashes of colour attached to her strongest emotions” and I had to laugh because this shouldn’t be justification for such terrible writing. I preferred its prose without it and hated it most when it showed up precisely where it felt out of place.
As if that wasn’t enough, Caraval was also full of repetitions. You know, in case you didn’t get it the first time.
If we’re talking about atmospheric, lyrical writing comparing this to The Night Circus is an insult.
Skip this. Just because it’s hyped doesn’t mean it’s great.