Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber (Caraval, #1)

By Soyeenka Mishra

“Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough for what they desire more than anything.”

I hadn’t immersed myself in a good fantasy book for an uncharacteristically long while. What better way to delve back into your favourite genre than a high fantasy trilogy? There was plenty of hype about this series back then, but that wasn’t what made me pick this specific series up. It was the synopsis – the setting and plot was unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The foundation of the entire world wasn’t set on any of the classic fantasy tropes or anything; it was a wholly unique concept. Being the curious cat that I am, I couldn’t resist the pull of all the great things that it promised. Now that I’ve finished the first book, I’ll say that was definitely a great decision.

It all started with a series of letters. Right off the bat, I was hooked to the story. It’s got this way of pulling you in. The initial pages might lull you into a false sense of security that perhaps this is gonna be a slow ride into the unknown as you eventually figure stuff out, but I’ll take it upon myself to advise you against relaxing in any way while you’re reading this book. Things happen at breakneck speed (only The Folk of the Air series comes to mind when I think of this kind of insane pace) and you’re gonna end up missing important bits of information if you don’t devote your entire attention to each and every line as you read.

My first impressions of some of the characters were way off the mark and I couldn’t be gladder. Almost all the characters were important to the plot in some way or another. But the main focus of the whole book is the Caraval, of course. I loved the delicate world-building of the entire premise of the game; the way even a seemingly-insignificant event had a major role in progressing the plot forward and just the intricacy of the plot was impressive.

“Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find yourself magic in this world.”

Another thing I loved about the book is how we readers get to know as much information as our protagonist, Scarlett Dragna, gleans (reading a story having no idea yourself either about what’s going on is something Six of Crows readers might be pleasantly familiar with). She twice gets a warning to not get too carried away by the magic of the Caraval, but she does end up getting caught up in it too deeply. But the catch is that she’s not the only one. The readers get caught up in that maddening tangled web that is the Caraval, as well. It’s like a splash of cold water on your face when all the big reveals are done at the end and you’re left with your mind spinning. The element of dramatic irony can sometimes weaken the effect of certain major plot twists, and that’s exactly what didn’t happen here, with some exceptions. I did manage to predict a few things that were later revealed, but that doesn’t mean this story is predictable. Gosh, it isn’t! I was on the edge of my figurative seat the whole time trying to guess the solution to some of the riddle-like problems, or maybe the identity of certain people, the location of certain things, and the like (all my crazy overthinking had me questioning my own sanity at some points). But the chapters still managed to catch me off-guard, proving a good majority of my assumptions wrong, surprising me at every turn. And the biggest selling point for me was the fact that you find the solutions to many of the mysteries as you jump from page-to-page, chapter-to-chapter and YET when you’re nearing the end, you’ll realise that you never really got answers about the more important questions you had in the beginning. It shouldn’t be a good thing but it is because that gives us something to look forward to in the second book. There’s no dull point for you to take a breather (unless you physically close the book, or in my case, put the phone down) – and still, ‘tired’ is not what you feel. It’s psychedelic dizziness you will feel, trying to process all the mind-boggling new pieces of info you uncover bit by bit.

Perhaps for the first time in a review, I’m refraining from elaborating on all the major characters. Hell, I didn’t even go into the details about Scarlett’s personality. I guess I feel I still have to witness the full spectrum of their personas since I’m only one-third into the series. I am positive that certain characters who didn’t have too much screen time (I totally have no idea which word would be appropriate here so kindly go along with it) are gonna have key roles in the upcoming books so there’s that factor too. Before commenting on what I feel about the characters, and as a result, cementing that initial opinion of them in my mind, I’ll prefer to freely experience them first in their glory, and then at the end, I’ll decide if I wanna write on them. But still, I already know this that most of our main characters are complex as hell. We do know who our protagonists are, but there are a couple of baddies among whom I’m not sure who our ultimate antagonist is. That being said, most of the characters we’ve met so far (hopefully we’ll meet new characters in the sequels) seem very multi-dimensional? There are just so many facades to be shed, so many secrets to be unveiled!

“There’s more to life than staying safe.”

There are so many elements jam-packed in here, like a rescue-mission, a pseudo-competition, romance, betrayal, adventure, mystery (oodles of it), to name a few. I’d have loved for our main couple’s romance to have played out a little slower, with more build-up since it almost felt like insta-love (which isn’t always the best thing in my dictionary), though it surely wasn’t. The tantalising slow-burn part was absent, though I’m not hugely discontent, since for me it took a back seat to the arcana of the Caraval and all the million questions constantly swirling around in my mind. But the most prominent story element is all the dreamy descriptions. The grandiloquence and purple prose are what tempt you to immerse yourself into the fantasy of the Caraval. I really loved all the ways Scarlett’s synesthesia was generously incorporated into her everyday thoughts. Since I hadn’t encountered this condition in any piece of literature prior to this book, I must say it was beautiful, to be able to associate colours with certain emotions. It definitely was of great help with the lengthy descriptions of probably mundane things, and I like lengthy descriptions, so there’s that.

Now, I’m not all praises for this book (mostly I am, though). There were certain scenes in this book that felt… dry to me? I won’t specify which ones since for once, I’m trying to keep my review spoiler-free (miracle of miracles, I know), but yeah, I felt like the emotional toll that scenes of such likeness should wrench out of me wasn’t really felt. I wanted things to unfold a little bit more dramatically, and wanted more time in between betrayals and the truth-reveals and forgiveness so that there could’ve been more pain. I am either a sadistic writer or a masochistic reader… probably both. Anyway, the ending was a bit… underwhelming, I’d say? I mean after all the elaborate plot, the climax was a bit too simple (one could argue that it is quite fitting after all we’ve been through), but the epilogue does promise more turbulent times to come (along with new mysteries to solve, paired with the delicious allure of answers to old questions), so with hopes of something better I end my two-penny worth.

Find an edited version of this review on The Ruskin Journal!

Image Courtesy: Soyeenka Mishra

Location: Bhubaneswar, India

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