The circus been the subject of some remarking writing in recent years, from the marvellously moving Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti to The Night Circus‘ unbridled delight, so I came to Caraval—a book about which there has much such buzz—with hope of happiness in my heart. Sadly, Stephanie Garber’s debut is more like a watered-down Water For Elephants than either of the efforts aforementioned.
“It took seven years to get the letter right.” Seven years of begging and pleading. Seven years of congratulations and salutations. Scarlett tried asking the master of Caraval for tickets to the greatest show the world has known on her own behalf—alas, he didn’t answer. She tried intimating that it would be her darling little sister’s wish to play the planet’s greatest game—but no dice were ever delivered. Perversely, then, it was only when Scarlett wrote to tell Legend that her imminent marriage meant she’d no longer be able to attend in any event that an invitation finally came in the mail.
Three invitations arrive, actually: one for her, one for her mysterious husband-to-be, and one for her no longer so little sister Tella. When that latter sees Legend’s letter, she does her utmost to convince Scarlett to take him up on his offer:
Nothing we do is safe. But this is worth the risk. You’ve waited your whole life for this, wished on every fallen star, prayed as every ship came into port that it would be that magical one carrying the mysterious Caraval performers. You want this more than I do.
She does, to be sure. But Scarlett is deeply afraid of her father. She’s afraid of what he would do, to her and to Tella too, if she leaves the conquered island of Trisda. You see, she’s tried to, in the past. She’s tried, and failed, and a good man died at her hateful father’s hands because of the mistake she made. She’s simply not willing to make another, especially because attending Caraval for the week it takes to complete would mean missing the wedding ceremony her father has gone out of his way to arrange. It might be to a man Scarlett has not yet met, and he might also be a monster, but at least she and her sister will be out of harm’s way after her big day.
So it’s a no. A no Tella disregards entirely. She has her own suitor, a sultry sailor name Julian, subdue Scarlett and spirit her off to la Isla de los Sueños—”the island of dreams” where Caraval is poised to take place. When she comes to a couple of days later, Scarlett wants nothing more than to turn back to Trisda, but she can’t countenance leaving her sister, and Tella has already traded in her ticket. To wit, to find her, Scarlett—and Julian as her fake fiance—have no choice but to follow in her footsteps. Thus the game begins!
But before it does, the unlikely couple are welcomed—and warned:
Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime. You can sip magic from a cup or buy dreams in a bottle. But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it’s all a game. What happens beyond this gate may frighten or excite you, but don’t let any of it trick you. We will try to convince you it’s real, but all of it is a performance. A world built of make-believe. So while we want you to get swept away, be careful of being swept too far away. Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won’t wake up.
That last is a fair summation of what follows, for there are indeed dreamlike moments in the course of Caraval; moments of “iridescent euphoria” made all the more impressive by Garber’s synesthetic sense of space and place. Said setting can be absolutely captivating, in fact. Its circular canals are “like a long apple peel spread out around curving lantern-lit streets full of pubs piping russet smoke, bakeries shaped like cupcakes, and shops wrapped in colour like birthday presents. Cerulean blue. Apricot orange. Saffron yellow. Primrose pink.”
But beneath this coat of wonderful colours is the frame of a nightmare: a dark and indubitably dangerous design that sets Scarlett to wondering whether “she’d found a way to escape her father’s deadly games on Trisda, only to become a well-costumed piece on a new game board.”
That’s clearly how the reader is supposed to feel. And early on, as Scarlett careens from clue to clue in search of Tella, you do get the sense that she’s in over her head—that she may even be being manipulated by someone who wishes her ill. But that initial impression is soon succeeded by a certain sinking feeling—that the plot, such as it is, is practically pointless: a mess of misdirection and meaningless maneuvering rather than the merry dance it’s meant to represent.
Caraval’s characters are little better. Scarlett and Tella are supposed to be share an unbreakable bond brought on by their shared suffering, but they’re separated for the bulk of the book, and on those rare occasions when Garber gives them some time together, they waste it bickering and snickering. There’s no spark between Scarlett and Julian either. On the contrary, they work at cross purposes and resent one another royally, so as predictable as it is, their eventual romantic entanglement comes across as entirely contrived.
Stephanie Garber’s debut does has its highlights—a tremendous setting, deftly depicted in description, and a premise that promises a plot worthy of its world—but a nonsensical narrative and a cast of characters that rely on redundant romance and laboured relationships are holes in the heart of Caraval that no clamour of colours, however lovely, can cover.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.