There were a few hot minutes where I was trying to pretend like there was anything I liked about this book. “You finished it,” I said to myself. “There had to be something that made you want to keep reading, right?”
Well, yes, of course: hatred.
From the very beginning, this book and its poor excuses for “characters” pissed me off. The main character is Scarlett, who is gutless and timid and who would do anything for her sister, Tella, because she loves her and Tella is the only thing important to her in the whole world. She has to protect Tella, because Tella never thinks before she does anything and certainly doesn’t seem to think about Scarlett as much as Scarlett thinks about her, and even though every thought of Scarlett’s about Tella is mostly complaining, Scarlett LOVES Tella. Did you get tired of reading in the last few sentences about thoughtless, selfish, frustrating Tella, who Scarlett still loves so much? Because that’s what the entire book is like.
Very short plot description: Scarlett grew up hearing stories about the magical Caraval and its mysterious leader, Legend. She wrote letters to him faithfully, trying to get him to bring Caraval to the island where she and her sister lived, because they are just his biggest fans. Years go by with no response until one year, days before her arranged marriage to a man she’s never met, she receives three invitations to Caraval for herself, her fiance, and Tella. When she gets to Caraval, it turns out to be a much higher stakes game than she was expecting: this time, the Caraval players are expected to follow a series of clues to find a missing girl. Quite unfortunately for Scarlett, the missing girl is Tella, from whom she was separated as soon as they arrived. So the game becomes very emotionally charged and frightening for Scarlett, because she needs to save her sister and get back to their home in time for her wedding, or else suffer the repercussions.
Caraval wanted to be so many things and was so inept at all of them. There isn’t enough character development to make the story compelling through emotional investment in their actions. Scarlett just wants for her and Tella to be safe. That’s important to her, because they are trapped on their tiny island home, with their abusive monster of a father. The father character is just a giant twirly mustache. He’s mean and violent because…. well, just because. Despite this, Scarlett somehow believes that the marriage that her father arranged between herself and her fiance, the ineffable Count, is going to be her meal ticket out of there and that she and Tella will be free, happy, and independent, because surely this Count is a really nice guy and nothing like her father despite participating in this marriage transaction with her father. So it’s Tella who schemes to get the two of them to Caraval by getting them aboard this pirate ship, and Scarlett is all a wreck because she has to get back to her wedding in like a week or something and she can’t believe Tella would jeopardize their definite future security. To be very clear: in the kindest terms, Scarlett is naive, and while not every main character needs to be the smartest, or wisest, or most informed person in the book at all times, one thing I can tell you for sure is that there is hardly a singularly more frustrating reading experience than being trapped inside the perspective of the person who knows the least possible information out of every single person on the page. Worse than that, even, is that despite being, again in the most gentle possible phrasing, not a naturally curious spirit or adept problem solver, the book just gifts Scarlett everything she needs to succeed anyway: clues miraculously fall into her lap; there’s a knowledgeable and motivated love interest who just simply can’t help but lead her around by the nose toward exactly what she needs to find; random NPCs seem unusually well-placed to provide Scarlett with advantages they’re surely not giving other competitors (because otherwise Scarlett would definitely not have a chance of “winning” the game she’s playing against, like, SO MANY other experienced players.)
As for both Tella and the love interest, Julian (the pirate who smuggled the girls to Caraval), the only enduring details provided about them is that Tella is basically a pain in Scarlett’s ass who she always has to rescue or protect (not that Scarlett’s love for Tella is affected by that WHATSOEVER) and Julian is a hottie with a body who has a dangerous smile and might also be lying to Scarlett all the time about everything. Inspiring stuff, really. I can only hope my own relationship is built off of similarly strong core values.
There is a complete lack of world-building, so half-assed it’s astonishing. It’s like the author believed that by simply saying the names of made-up places and referencing that people from those different places have different accents, that is enough to ground the story. Half the point of fantasy is the understanding that if you’re going to make up a world, you ought to fill it with depth and vitality like it is its own character. I have no idea what the purpose was of including detail, like that Scarlett’s family lived on a “Conquered Isle,” and that there are Eastern and Southern (I think? They were compass rose names) Empires, when there is no further historical or cultural context provided. If the world isn’t important until Scarlett gets to Caraval, fine! Maybe the only thing that was important is that Scarlett is from a very small island and has been sheltered from the larger world. But then you can leave out the crap random details that try to trick the reader into believing that any modicum of thought went into fleshing out the setting. It’s like fixing up only the exterior of a house and allowing prospective buyers to believe that the inside is not still empty and dilapidated.
Oh, and I haven’t even yet discussed the shitty, contrived plot and its lazy, gotcha! approach to drama and engagement. If you like plot twists that are confusing and obvious at the same time (obvious, not necessarily in that you DEFINITELY see them coming, but rather that everything in this book has been done before by better books) then maybe this book is for you. Otherwise, you’re just going to be groaning at basically every development. The romance happens not because Scarlett and Julian have any real chemistry, but because that’s just what happens in a book like this, and because apparently giving Scarlett’s sister competition for Scarlett’s overbearing fussing is what passes for emotional conflict and complexity in this story. Scarlett’s father and her fiance show up (spoilers I guess, but fucking whatever) to make Scarlett’s life even harder as she tries to get through the game of Caraval, and she and Julian are thrown into an utterly ridiculous escape sequence that defies all of the logic of how someone trying to get away from someone else would behave.
And then there’s Legend, the puppetmaster of Caraval. All throughout the book, he’s this tantalizing dark figure, and there are all of these references to his tragic backstory (the inception of Caraval was meant to impress a girl he loved, and she married someone else anyway) and how in the decades since, this eternally handsome young man has dealt with the pain by throwing himself into the game and potentially losing his right sense of morality in the process, playing villians and tricksters so well that he takes on those characteristics himself. It’s all very romantic in a gothic way (which, to be fair, I can appreciate) but despite being potentially the character with the most developed sense of motivation and agency out of everyone in the book, he’s not actually a part of it in a real sense. The reason for this is 100% certainly due to the fact that there will be a sequel and he’s likely to be more of a focal point there, but the effect on this book is that it almost ends up being an extended prologue for the “true” story, the redemption of Legend.
Anyway, if you made it to the end of this review, or if you’re just looking for the tl;dr, here it is: this book was bad and I’m mad about how bad it was. I used to be trash for crappy YA fantasy and I can’t tell if I’ve grown out of it, or if some of it is just really crappy and it’s riding the coattails of better books toward undeserved popularity. Don’t read this book; it’s not worth it. If you want to read a book that’s got magic and romance and drama and teen angst, I promise you’d be better off going with The Lunar Chronicles, The Raven Cycle, the Grisha-verse, and ANYTHING by Laini Taylor, my god.