Wednesday 15 March 2017

Review! - Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval title image


Title: CaravalCaraval book cover

Author: Stephanie Garber

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Series: Caraval #1

Amazon: UK - USA

A few starting notes:

I received a free digital review copy of this book via NetGalley. NetGalley provides review copies from publishers in exchange for fair and honest reviews.

This book has a lot of hype attached; does it deserve it? Urmmm - let's take a look...


Remember, it's only a game...

Or is it? Because Scarlett is beginning to wonder.

It starts with an invitation - a reply to Scarlett's numerous letters to the game's master, the mysterious Legend - but things quickly begin to escalate.

And now, Scarlett must find her sister, Tella, before it's too late...

...Remember, it's only a game.

Best bits:

I love the ambiguity of this book. As in, I have thought and thought about it, and I still have no freaking clue how I feel about the various characters... and I kind of like that.

Let's face it, it's not an everyday occurrence to get that level of complexity and nuance in YA - and that impressed me.

Plus there's enough twists and turns here to keep even the most battle-weary reader guessing.

No sooner do you think you've figured it out, than everything is turned on it's head again. And that's pretty cool.

I also liked the whimsical-ness.

Ignoring the comparisons to The Night Circus (because no, it's not like The Night Circus - ignore the marketers,) there was a good level of intrigue and muted magic.

What do I mean by muted magic?

Well, it's not like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings levels of wand-waving and sparkly explosions etc., but it's def. more magical than, say, magic realism.

There's magic here, but it's grounded in illusion, and doesn't do too many physics/reality-defying things (though it does do a few... when convenient.)

girl in magic dress pic

We have people of colour (PoC) characters in this book - which is a plus.

They are also just as complex and morally ambiguous (good, bad-ish, and indifferent,) as everyone else - another plus.

One PoC character, Julian, who is described as brown-skinned and has a Spanish-sounding last name, is the love interest/one of the main secondary characters - yet another plus!

BUT, there are a couple of issues with the diverse rep in this book - see next section.

Not so great bits:

First things first, there's a lot of potentially distressing content here, please pay attention because this book gets quite shocking in places:

- child abuse (teens) - VERY GRAPHIC

- physical abuse - VERY GRAPHIC

- emotional abuse

- threat/fear and danger of rape and sexual assault - v distressing

- forced marriage

- violence against women

- parental condoning of rape

- sexism and misogyny

- murder - GRAPHIC

- suicide - GRAPHIC

- suicide attempts - GRAPHIC

- violence - GRAPHIC

- gore - GRAPHIC

- kidnapping

- drugging

- parental abandonment

- controlling parent

There's also some references to sexy-times.

Honestly, a lot of the imagery in this book is very strong - especially considering it's YA - so be aware.

flower divider

One of the most definitive things I can say about this book is that it's just... ok. Not great. Not awful. Just... meh.

Now, given the amount of hype around this book, people will be expecting something special... and I can't tell you that it delivers.

Because, while enjoyable, it's not the 'wow' that many people will be looking for.

Some of the characters are also a little irritating.

Scarlett can be a little dim/frustrating, and I honestly would've debated whether or not to actually rescue Tella. But then, family's family.

Also, Scarlett sees colours sometimes for emotions - but this is a comes-and-goes sort of event, and seems completely inconsistent.

It's also never made clear whether this is metaphorical, magical, or some form of synaesthesia.

flower divider

Scarlett and Donatella's father, Governor Dragna, is the one always-gonna-be-a-bad-guy character of the book.

He's an out and out villain. He's also queer coded.

This means that, without it ever being explicitly mentioned that he is gay, or anything other than allo-cishet, signifiers are given that he is stereotypically, (and negatively,) effeminate.

  • He's portrayed as vain: overly-concerned with his clothing, and his looks.

  • Dragna wears perfume, and it's from this floral scent that Scarlett detects his presence before he arrives in a scene.

  • A lot is made of this scent - it's described as a sickeningly sweet sort of smell, and it makes Scarlett feel nauseous.

Queer coding isn't OK - it stereotypes men who have more 'feminine' traits, as somehow inherently bad, or evil.

This forms the trope of the Sissy Villain, and compounds 'flaming'/camp stereotypes, as well as the idea that LGBTQ+ people are somehow inherently bad.

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Issues with PoC rep

If any PoC reviewers/bloggers/internet-people have written about the PoC aspects of this book, please let me know - I'd love to link to it.

I also felt like maybe Julian's race was a bit... undeveloped...? Understated...? Unexplored...? I'm not sure which word works better.

It wasn't spot-on guys, there was something amiss... like you could've swapped in a white character with little-to-no effort.

It took me a while to figure out whether Julian even was PoC - for a long time he was just described as tan, or as olive-skinned.

Since both of these terms have been used fairly regularly to describe me, and I'm white, they're pretty inconclusive as descriptions.

It was only when he was described as brown-skinned, several chapters after we first meet him, that I was sure.

flower divider


It's readable. It's entertaining. It's enjoyable.

But, for me, Caraval just wasn't quite up to scratch.

Yeah, I enjoyed reading it but... *shrugs* meh.


Caraval... *shrugs* meh.    Click to Tweet.

UPDATE 16th May: Jen @ The Book Avid also makes some important points related to the depictions of suicide, sexual assault, and abuse in this book.

UPDATE 14th Apr 2020: link to previous update no longer active

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  1. I really wanted to read this book. I thought ur would be the best book I've ever read this year because everyone seems to be head over heels for it. But then the warnings started coming up and then I thought it would be too graphic for me, so now I'm just really not sure? I'm kind of on the fence.

    1. It's quite shocking in places - nothing compared to a horror film, but also not a walk in the park.

      I would def day to not get your hopes up too much - it's fine. But it's not earth-shattering, and going in with lowered expectations would probably make you enjoy it more! :)

    2. *say - typing while watching TV, lol!

  2. Thanks for this review, Cee. I've been so hyped to read this as everyone's been like 'AMAZING 5/5' and I haven't see ANYONE talk about it like this, so it's really grounding and is making me kind of rethink it. I mean I probably will still read it, but now I think I'm going to stop my frantic searching for the clock hardback and just wait until I can find it somewhere cheaper, like The Works or Asda, if I'm still desperate. Kinda disappointing that it doesn't live up to the hype, but that's life I guess!

    1. To be honest, I think you'll enjoy it more if you go in with lower expectations. It's ok, but the hype really does build it into something which *shrugs* I just didn't find it to be. Still, it's enjoyable.

      Glad to be of service *bows*

  3. Great review!
    I'm not into graphic violence in books and I am glad you pointed it out. There seems to be so much of it that I don't think I'll be reading this one.

    1. I've definitely read more graphic things but... it *was* pretty shocking, just in the way that it was written. And I'm a veteran of horror novels, so... make of that what you will!

  4. Ah, I am easily squeaked, but I'll be giving this one a go. My brother got it for me, so, hoping to like it. The whimsicality of books inspires me a lot, because that's the sort of book I'd like to write. So, looking for inspiration and warning of things not to do in the stuff I'm working on. Awesome review, as always. Very helpful.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! I did find it a very enjoyable read, but keep your expectations below the level of the hype, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it more. Also, hopefully you won't find the violent bits so shocking, now that you know they're in there!

  5. Yeah... the hype around this book has been absolutely insane. I am glad you've been able to enjoy what you've read so far though, and that it was decent enough of a read. I mean, I like the idea of it being complex despite it being a YA (even though the graphic imagery makes me wonder if it can be really classified as that), and that the magic is kind of muted... that sounds mysterious to me!

    1. It was def enjoyable... but not exactly worth the hype! (IMHO!)

  6. I like how honest your reviews are. I like to know if you think it's only 'alright'. This sounds interesting because I don't mind muted magic, but on the other hand, some parts don't really sound like my cup of tea.

    #RV&HT Thanks for linking up x

    1. Thank you! :) I've always thought it's important to be completely honest when you're reviewing things - how can you be of use if you're not giving your true opinion?

  7. As someone who is LGBTQ+, the "queer-coding" part is stupid. Just wearing perfume and caring about looks doesn't make someone more feminine. Literally look at so many celebrities nowadays who are straight men that care about their looks and wear perfume. It's not something that's queer-coding, it's just how the author chose to characterize him and make him separate from the other characters

    1. As someone who is also LGBTQ+, I'm pretty confident in the villain being Queer-coded in this book. Queer-coding is about stereotyping - it doesn't mean that Allocishet people can't wear perfume. It means that the stereotypical Flaming Queer would be described using signifiers *such as* perfume.

      But thanks for your unnecessary input, dear Anonymous, on this review I wrote in 2017 when I had an Advanced Readers Copy of this book.


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