Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is the first young adult novel I picked up after many, many years, bypassing the genre for the classics, crime, and other modern fiction.
I discovered her work when I saw the limited edition of its sequel, Legendary, at Goldsboro Books’ website (already out of stock). Intrigued, I bought the book for its promise of a spectacular adventure filled with magic, wonder, treachery, and dark secrets.
The genre itself has grown exponentially in popularity over the years, so much so that one can expect a new release or debut novel each year. In fact, a quick search on Instagram will reveal several YA-specific book box subscriptions meant to delight reading enthusiasts around the world. Sadly, most of these operated abroad and were too expensive for me to consider.
The sheer number of young adult titles can leave a new reader feeling overwhelmed and unsure about where to begin. This is where the reading reviews come in to play where they act as beacons guiding readers to books and authors people either enjoy or despise. I chose Caraval for the promise of light, pleasurable reading without any expectations or prior knowledge about what constitutes good YA writing.
Entering Caraval ?
I was telling my husband during a car ride home that a YA novel, from my perspective, is often a case of hit-and-miss. A novel may either be a huge success or a flop you wish you hadn’t spent money. The plot, character development, language, tone, literary devices, and the author’s craftsmanship often lead to a black-or-white verdict in which the work is either hard to forget or forgive.
Caraval is, thankfully, work that I consider half-and-half where it falls into that shared space between two circles, so it didn’t feel like a complete waste of my birthday book discount. On one hand, there were details in the novel I found particularly interesting and, to some extent, poetic. On the other, there were scenes and sections of narration that jutted out like a broken nail you just can’t help but notice and want to chew off.
There’s so much to highlight and argue for, but to concise things I’ll only share what, for me, is the book’s biggest strength and weakness, with a bit of commentary and page references in between, since these stood out and remained with me even after turning the last page.
Color, object, and sense as emotion
If you’ll pull out the Oxford dictionary of literary terms, you’ll find magic realism, “a kind of modern fiction in which fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the ‘reliable’ tone of objective realistic report” (Baldick 194).
It’s presented to the reader at the beginning of the book where the narrator introduces the main character and how her emotions translate into color: “Scarlett’s feelings came in color even brighter than usual” (Garber 12).
It goes on to describe a multitude of feelings as concrete objects, colors, and senses. Flowers, burning coals, leaves; the flapping of a bird’s wings, the buttery, sugary taste of light, the dark before dawn; bravery in blue, death in purple, despair in dark brown.
As an advocate of imagery, I find this direction poetic and ambitious, yet with a prerequisite. It’s hard to imagine how someone with minimal life experience could see, hear, and taste these experiences with any level of appreciation. More importantly, one may experience sorrow or joy in different shades, so if it’s hard to fathom how desire could be blue or how dread could be in shades of vile green and brown, I invite you to head out into the world, experience these emotions fully, and see them with your own unique colors and descriptions.
If, however, magic realism is what’s being pursued here, then further work needs be done to make this even more successful. Some of the images used and the language handling the illustration feel unnatural, disconnected, and, at times, excessively dramatic that it loses its magical realness: “Brownish green, the color of forgotten memories, abandoned dreams, and bitter gossip” (190).
A work-in-progress taken out of the oven way too early
As much as I enjoyed this suspenseful adventure, Caraval unfortunately isn’t close to being a finished work of fiction.
There were many things that still needed cleaning and sharpening—the vague setting, stock characters that didn’t have enough space to grow (e.g. Governor Marcello Dragna), the gaps in the characters’ histories and relationships, the origins of Caraval that histographer Aiko failed to serve.
What stood out to me the most, and not in the best of ways, is the writing itself—the tone, the dramatic use of repetition (54), the lack of brevity and subtlety in the attempt to stoke the fires of romantic thrill and intensity.
I’m more drawn to a character’s desire when it’s carefully crafted through action, dialogue, or situation. If the use of color, object, and senses carried over to Scarlett’s ruminations, I would’ve felt for and with her much more. Instead, I had to get down on my knees and crawl through her overt sensitivities and her internal arguments over her divided priorities. It’s a stark contrast to how color and emotion are interwoven that you feel uncomfortable, like being in the same room with a couple as they kiss and grope one another.
Will the sequel bring us more Caraval magic?
Despite its flaws, I have faith in the plot’s potential. If the writing can be sharpened and the world of Caraval unfurled further, the series can shine with the magic already created for us.
People have started reading copies of Legendary, but I’m in no hurry. I’ll wait till the the sequel becomes available here in the Philippines.
Until then, Legend and his players will keep their place on my shelf till I get another golden ticket to play the game a second time.
Did you read and enjoy Caraval? What do you think are the book’s biggest strength and/or weakness? Let me know in the comments. ⭐
Baldick, Chris, editor. Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Third ed., Oxford University Press, 2008.
Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. International ed., Flatiron Books, 2017.
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