4.0 out of 5 stars
"Lovely, Dark, and Deep"
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on 25 July 2018
“Lovely, dark, and deep,” from Frost’s poem about the woods, are words that can also describe Stephanie Garber’s unique Caraval. Although fixed firmly in the YA lit category due to the ages of its female protagonists and the occasional teenage-girl-fantasy descriptions of the impossibly handsome Julian, Caraval is a far more sophisticated option than the average YA gothic romance. Thankfully, both vampires and werewolves are absent from the world of Caraval, and the magic of the story was both minimal and creative. Scarlett, the overly-cautious heroine, is given a magical gown that reinvents itself every day, and her hotel room expands into a suite, but mostly the significant magic is saved for the surprise ending.
Vaguely reminiscent of The Hunger Games and The Night Circus, Caraval is a massive game that is held by invitation only on a magical isle. The Caravel game is unique, however: it’s something like an enormous magical dinner theater in which the players are enveloped for several days. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how it plays with reality. What is real? What is merely part of the game? Whom can you trust? What are the consequences for choosing the wrong door, failing to be home before sunrise, or trusting your senses instead of the game clues? Scarlett and her sister Donatella are whisked away from their abusive father by a handsome sailor and brought to the island where Caravel takes place, but when Scarlett awakens on a raft near the island, she finds that Tella has been kidnapped and it is up to Scarlett to rescue her, with the no-so-convenient aid of the handsome sailor Julien.
The world of Caraval enchants and delights, but not quite in a Harry Potter sort of way: a carousel of roses spins faster and faster when the carousel-master sings songs, otherworldly pastries are available on street corners, and the past and future appear on the pages in a book of paintings, but there are dark edges to the magic. A dress in a shop costs a few days of Scarlett’s life, but (mild spoiler warning) life days can be exchanged in a manner almost reminiscent of the video game life-trading in the 2017 version of Jumanji. The dark elements in the book involve abuse, dismemberment, and murder, but I think that on average nothing is so graphic that it would sicken sensitive readers. The overly-cautious heroine from an abusive family endures some harrowing experiences, but perseveres with courage and determination. She is, in fact, one of my favorite literary females of all time, and one of my favorite things about the novel. In my opinion, it’s extremely difficult to write a good action novel heroine. Katniss was too much of a tomboy for my taste, as was Tris from Divergent. Meaning no disrespect to Stephanie Meyer, who has made infinitely more money than I have as a writer, Bella from Twilight was just boring. But Scarlett could be me. That, of course, is why I connect with her character so strongly, but more than that, I think she’s a finely-drawn portrait of an older sister who has endured far more than she should have had to in her young life and as a result has developed some particular anxieties about her sister and getting into trouble. For comparison, I enjoyed this book more than The Night Circus, although that novel had more literary polish. I never really connected with any of The Night Circus characters, and the plot of that novel, in my opinion, was not as interesting as that of Caraval.
There are two major difficulties I had with this book that prevented me from giving it five stars. The first is the ending, which uses magic to cheat fate in a happy but rather predictable way. That’s not horrible, but it’s not entirely great, either. Far more serious, though, is the fact that the hero of this novel, like the Beast from the Disney story, is a scary manipulator who turns out (spoiler warning) to have a heart of gold in the end. Or, in this case, whose heart seems to be turning into gold by the end. The problem I have with this is that I married one of these guys—a lying manipulator—and I thought it would be ok because I love fairy tales like this one and he, too, seemed to have a heart of gold beneath the grime. But in real life, unfortunately, lying manipulators tend to be just that, and they (usually?) don’t improve if you just give them love. In fact, in real life, such people often to take even further advantage of you if they think that you’ll just react by trying harder to love them. So in real life, naïve girls like Scarlett and I should stay very far away from guys like Julien. That being said, as long as the reader is well aware of this truth (real life bad boys generally can’t and shouldn’t be trusted) , the novel is highly entertaining and even deeply meaningful, as Scarlett tries desperately to break free from the abuse of her childhood, find her true nature, and rescue her sister.
What would Keats and Aristotle say? Great beauty of characters and plot. Some rather silly teenage swoon moments that mar the canvas a little, and one significant disturbing element plus the predictable ending, so pretty good for beauty and ok for truth as far as a YA novel is likely to go. With caveats, highly recommended.
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