Caraval by Stephanie Garber - a review
I don’t normally post my reviews as blog posts, but this time round I really had to. Caraval, by Stephanie Garber, has garnered much attention and I thought I’d check out what all the hype was about. To say I was sorely disappointed is an understatement. However, this book provides so much material to discuss what is wrong with the fantasy genre at the moment, that I’ll be taking a look at it anyway. Alert, this review contains spoilers.
This book had much promise. The premise of a magical world created exclusively for a game, where the players meet actors and cannot be certain who is real and who is acting—with high-end stakes—could have been exceptional. Instead, Garber floundered with poor execution. Her attempt at writing emotions with colour could have worked, but it got weird very quickly. By the end of the book I was rolling my eyes at the emotive descriptions using colour. Honestly, there were moments where it verged on purple prose.
My biggest problem with this novel was Scarlett’s refusal to accept her hero’s journey. Now, I know this is a trope, and when done properly, it can be incredibly effective. Nevertheless, when the main character doesn’t want to be in her own story for two thirds of the way, I as a reader don’t see why I should be joining her. The situation bothered me so much I actually took note when Scarlett finally accepted her situation and manned up. It was on page 280. Her refusal was the main reason I could not get into this book and why it did not really captivate me. Since Scarlett was against going on her journey and had to be coerced into it in various ways, the book failed to draw me in. Why should I want to be there if the main character doesn't?
The second thing that really bothered me was the lack of characterisation. The characters are incredibly flat. Worst of all is the father, who is one-dimensional. He’s just a bad guy. Controlling, scheming, manipulative. No attempt is made to identify whether he really became this way since the mother disappeared. Furthermore, hints are made throughout the book that Scarlett was invited to Caraval as part of Master Legend’s desire for revenge relating to his own past and her family, but then Scarlett never even contemplates the possibility that her mother’s disappearance could have been linked to this which would also offer an explanation for her father's behaviour and reaction. This flatness in the characters and the plot ran throughout and took away from the story tremendously. I would have appreciated Scarlett entertaining thoughts that her father could be more than just a nasty man. People are deeper than that. There must be reasons for his actions—thoughts and fears underlying everything he did—but we don’t get any insight.
Not only do the characters lack an arc or any reasonable growth, the lack of emotive description heightens their flatness. Garber loved to go overboard with her descriptions of Caraval, adding colour to emotions and in general inventing “impossible things” before breakfast, but she failed to describe the characters feelings. Scarlett’s attraction to Julian is glossed over. We are told she falls in love, but her feelings aren’t even touched on... what happened to the gut-wrenching confusion of being attracted to a guy she just met, doesn’t know anything about and then finds out he’s been lying to her? Considering the colourful display of emotive writing in describing the world, this was disappointing. We cannot surgically remove sexual attraction from romantic love when we fall in love. Because of this oversight, this aspect of the storytelling lacked depth.
Another really big rookie error was to make the love interest so obvious. From the very first moment we meet Julian, it was obvious he was actually “a good guy”. Garber stuck to the trope and made no real attempt to give him any personality. This made it hard to believe his “tough guy” and “inconsiderate loser” acts. His behaviour at times just didn’t come across as believable because it was already clear he was going to be the perfect man/love interest.
I was also incredibly disappointed in the nicknames. Calling Scarlett, “Scar”, and Donatella, “Tella”, is just lame. People with names that are difficult to turn into nicknames tend to get situational nicknames which are related either to events from their childhood and/or what their mother might have called them. “Sugar” and “Spice”, or “Bug” and “Puddles” with an explanation where the nickname originated is proper storytelling. Garber got lazy. I totally hated reading Donatella call her sister “Scar”.
Finally, as I’ve mentioned as a big issue on my to-hate-list on a previous occasion, Garber offered a perfect, fluffy, sugared ending. I’ve already gone into detail on why I despise such endings. All I’ll say now is it detracted from what came before. Garber’s decision to end the book that way took a lot away from the bitter-sweet experiences she’d already offered. As I mentioned in that previous post, I fear these sappy endings are going to affect our development and ability to deal with the bitter-sweet of reality. If we only receive sweet throughout, when the bitter truly happens to us, I cannot see how we will be able to deal with it and perhaps we will only be able to see the bitter in reality, failing to see the sweet, which is a direct ticket to depression and despair. We need both in literature to help us see both in our own lives and to prepare us to deal accordingly.
Caraval is the perfect combination of everything I dislike about more recent fantasy novels. After giving it two weeks to think about, even the small areas where I thought I could attribute merit, have faded or been subsumed in my criticism. I cannot recommend this book at all. It has a slow, dragging beginning, poor world building, poor characterisation, impossibly perfect romantic interests for a “strong”, but actually irritating, “Mary Sue” female protagonist, and a pathetic ending.
What irritates you in a story? Are there any trends that get to you? What bothers you in contemporary popular literature?
Please share your insights and contribute to the discussion. I would love to know your thoughts on recent reads, or Caraval, for that matter. Please share your thoughts in a comment.
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