The Sins of Caraval: A Book Review

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Recently, my brownie and I purchased some OwlCrate book boxes during a sale. I’m not wild about buying a reoccurring book box, simply because I’m extremely picky about books. So when the sale came, we snatched up three boxes and decided we’d review them.

I’m doing the ‘sins’ of Caraval. I’ll probably be doing the sins of all three books because I’m an editor and thus a book critic, but who knows. I might really love one of the stories.

Likely not.

Anyway.

I will say that Caraval is definitely ‘shelf-candy’ and it truly is a pretty book. But that’s a win, and I’m doing sins, remember?

Head on over to my brownie’s website to read about the ‘wins’ of Caraval.

Sins of Caraval

Oh dear, where to start.

Poor representation of synesthesia.

(Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation“) is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3][4] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.)

I find it troubling that YA authors throw in stuff like this as a ‘token symptom’. What do I mean by that? In favor of ‘diversity’, TV shows will throw in a random character that is biologically different or racially different than the rest. Now, in YA fiction, authors feel like they have to have the same elements: a gay character, a ‘Euro-Asian’ character, or something to promote diversity. Throwing in a synesthete without explanation is just as annoying as the token characters in our favorite TV. They don’t often get any character development or plot, and they exist solely to keep the critics off the film’s back.

So, Scarlett, Caraval’s MC, has synesthesia (it’s important to note that it’s never called that throughout the book). I first noticed this during the first sentence in chapter 2: ‘Scarlett’s feelings came in colors even brighter than usual.’

Me: Okay, That’s slightly dramatic.

I didn’t connect the dots until waaaay later in the book, after rolling my eyes at sentences like ‘Scarlet saw three shades of berry-colored embarrassed’ (or something pretty similar to that. I don’t have the book in front of me)

That makes no sense.

This may have been easier to follow had Ms. Garber used normal devices for describing the world the rest of the time. Scarlet’s synesthesia is cheapened to the point where I (as the reader who already is familiar with synesthesia) couldn’t figure it out. An easy 90% of the description is color. If color had been used sparingly, the fact Scarlet had synesthesia would have made sense sooner.

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Worldbuilding.

There is none. This probably disappointed me the most. I was hoping for another Night Circus + a mystery and clues and an island with a carnival that runs on magic and it seemed so promising.

But no.

The geography of the world makes no sense. Is the magic real? Maybe, but maybe not. Does the fact they all live on Spanish-y Islands give us any real insight into their culture, food, dress, or religion. Nope. There’s none of that, either.

Soooo much potential for a cool magic system, a cool history-fantasy world, different culture and exotic experiences and it’s all thrown away in favor of a story where people keep randomly stripping down for no reason. More on that later.

Believability.

To write a good story, you need to suspend the reader’s disbelief. Think about Narnia, and how not only were those of us who read the stories totally sucked in by the idea that one could access a fantasy realm through a magic wardrobe, but that we also randomly check the closets and wardrobes in our own homes to see if maybe someday there would be a forest back there with a lamppost (don’t tell me I’m the only one, guys).

Caraval did none of this. The world never felt real (see above point), the characters were never sympathetic, and the crisis felt flat. This could have been all solved in part, by the author’s voice.

Have you ever met someone who was reaaaaaaaaaaaally dramatic? I don’t even need to give you an example of this– you all can conjure up stories and memories of ‘that one person who’. Right?

When it’s the author of the book, things can go downhill really fast. The author voice in Caraval is extremely hysterical for most of the book. From descriptions that don’t make any sense (‘her sadness was like freshly cut wood’- just think about that. Scarlet’s not going to be sad about freshly cut wood because that’s how all the heating is provided- by wood. Wood is going to remind her of fires on cold nights and that’s not something that makes anybody sad)

Also, if you were a writer as a child, you remember one thing clearly: things magically happened to help your characters. Am I right? The next clue in the mystery suddenly floated down from the sky; when your characters needed dry clothes, bam! they had them; when they needed anything, it just happens. There’s no explanation, no recourse or consequences. Everything is easy sailing.

Though everything in Caraval is supposed to be magic, I found this particular element too much. Julian and Scarlet’s rowboat sinks for no reason except for Julian to get to rescue her and take his shirt off later, and lo and behold when they get to shore, the first unlocked store they enter has magic clothes that they can just take. Perfect. It didn’t feel like magic, it felt too convenient. But it wasn’t a trap. It never backfired. It didn’t work like a real world.

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Character Voice

If you’ve followed my previous blog, you already know my strong feelings for believable characters. If not, here’s a quick recap:

Dialogue can’t be copied down from what a writer hears in real life; the sentences you hear spoken are littered with things we tune out when we hear them (the ‘ums’ the ‘uhs’ the ‘likes’, and so on). We don’t speak or think clearly like a character must when they’re talking on a page.

AND

Internal voices (the voice inside your head, your thought voice, your internal monologue) can’t be accurate, either. We can write them believably, but we cannot write them realistically. (On that note, I’d like to write a story with a more realistic internal monologue that gets a song stuck in their head for several pages)

Scarlett’s internal voice is very weird. She seems unable to solve any problem on her own. Circumstances force her to do things, never her own decisions. She goes back and forth and back and forth over the same problems and never solves them. Ever.

The story is told in a sort of semi-omniscient narrative fashion and we’re supposed to be in Scarlett’s head but it never really seems so.

(Also. The phrase describing her father’s perfume (why not cologne you ask, I don’t know) is ‘blah blah blah… something akin to rotted plums. This doesn’t help. I don’t know what rotted plums smell like, much less something that’s ‘akin’ to them. This descriptor, like the ‘freshly cut wood’ does nothing to help me imagine and annoys me more than anything.)

And let’s not even talk about how creepy and sociopathic Tella is. Let’s just move along.

The Chief Vice: Cleverlessness

Scarlet is dull. That’s her chief vice, in my opinion. I can read books where the plot is half-baked, the dialogue is lame, and the conclusion isn’t very conclusive if there’s cleverness to offset the failures.

The problem with Caraval and with Scarlett is that there was so much potential for cleverness, but there wasn’t any. Nothing was clever. Nothing made me sit back and smile and think I like that. Nice!

I think she’s meant to be clever. I think Ms. Garber means the book to be clever, but it’s not. There’s no puzzling through clues in a meaningful way, there’s no trying to work out a mystery. Scarlet hops from wild idea to wild idea and just like in the books I wrote as a 7-year-old, everything magically works out. She’s magically in the right place at the right time and we’re never privy to how exactly she arrives at the conclusions.

Sacrifice is Cheap:

In the story, Scarlet is ‘tricked’ into buying two dresses. They cost her a great deal: something she’s most afraid of and one day of her life. (She actually dies. For a day. Why is this never explained?)

Anyway, the dresses are pointless. The exercise turns out to be pointless and the entire reason for the looong scene is so that in the end, Scarlett can curl up with Julian on a bed and die for a day. Wow. Great.

The dresses were the crowning disappointment for me. This would have been a perfect time for Scarlett to buy one of those other interesting things that actually could have helped her find her sister. This is an island where magical items abound! Glasses that see the future and potions that protect and thousands of other things that might have been worth the sacrifice. But she chose dresses. When she already had a magic dress that changed to fit the mood/circumstance.

So disappointing. So lacking in cleverness.

When the answer to everything is ‘it might have been real, it might not, but you were told to believe nothing here’, the entire experience feels pointless. I don’t need to see behind the curtain, but I’d like to know that the curtain is there for a reason.

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Why is everyone stripping down all. the. time?

Please help me. I should have counted how many times people were undressed/ randomly lost their clothing/ randomly had to rip their shirt off dramatically. Keep your clothing on, everyone. It doesn’t raise the sexual tension and it’s not realistic.

A Conclusion:

We’ve stopped writing stories with heart. We’ve started throwing in token characters, token conditions, and believing that if we skim over the why and the how of the story, we’ll be okay.

That’s a lie.

Give me stories with heart, where synesthesia is a tool for success or failure, where the characters are clever and fail, and fail, and fail until there’s only heart and determination that saves them in the end. Give me stories with deep worldbuilding and meaningful details. Give me an author that puts so much thought into their stories that when the readers close the last page, they think:

Wow. That was amazing.

Have you ever read a story that disappointed you a great deal? Tell me about it in the comments. Any suggestions about what I should read next… have you read anything recently that was clever?

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