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FICTION: PLAYING WITH DANGER

June 04, 2017

In Stephanie Garber’s debut novel Caraval, we meet a pair of sisters who are nothing like each other but very close nonetheless. Scarlett and Tella have always lived on a small island with their father, a cruel, rich megalomaniac who spends much of his time finding ways to punish his daughters in terrible, brutal ways for their misdemeanours. He’s also fixed an arranged marriage for Scarlett, who agrees to it because it may be a way to get herself and her sister off the island and far away from their father. Plus, her betrothed seems perfectly nice from the letters he sends. Before this plan, Scarlett dreamed of running away with the circus, as it were, dreaming of an escape with Caraval, an annual audience-interactive performance that hasn’t made an appearance in some years, but whose stories she grew up hearing. For seven years Scarlett has written to the man who runs the show, but has never heard back. Until now.

Just when she has accepted that marriage is the right thing to do for her and Tella’s sakes, Scarlett receives an invitation to Caraval from none other than Legend himself, the man, the myth, the magical, ageless ringleader of the performance and ‘game’. Though uncertain of what this could mean if she misses her wedding which is due to be held in a few days (and is her only chance of escaping her father and the island she feels trapped on), Scarlett finds herself following Tella to the island where Caraval is to take place, entirely unaware that this year’s performance has been created around a search for Tella, who appears to have been taken away by Legend as the ultimate prize for the game. Once there, Scarlett realises that everything she once thought was just an elaborate act of entertainment may well be much more than that, as she struggles to find her sister in a seemingly impossible world of magic and danger, searching for clues alongside Julian, a man who insists he is a friend, but could well be playing a part as well. What is he hiding? What is the connection between Scarlett’s family and Legend? Who is Legend and how does Caraval even exist in the way it does?

So Scarlett enters the game with Julian, and tries her best to figure out what’s happening around her and what could lead her to rescue Tella. Along the way, she is caught up in a potential romance with Julian and another man, is preyed upon by Legend himself and is constantly tested. In fact, Scarlett’s main characteristic appears to be her guilt at having ‘lost’ her sister to Caraval, and her love for Tella is what seems to drive the narrative forward. It’s not that interesting things don’t happen along the way — it’s just that Scarlett isn’t the most interesting of protagonists. That is not to say that flawed, weak characters don’t make interesting protagonists (because they can, and they do), but in this case, Scarlett may well leave many readers cold. It takes her a while to come into her own, to evolve beyond being just a victim attempting escape. Watching her reach a level of agency whereby she can move the plot along herself isn’t a fun process — it’s fairly frustrating, repetitive and often tedious. Even the romance feels stilted at best and appalling at worst, as Scarlett is repeatedly manipulated by the men she seems to be attracted to.

Not quite ‘divergent’ for those who ‘hunger’ for less ‘pandemonium’ and more ‘brave new worlds’

The world of Caraval is nearly as stifling as the world Scarlett ran away from. At home, her father controls everything on their tiny island. In the game and on the island on which it is played, Legend is the one who controls everything. Scarlett and Tella are buffeted about at the whims of a man who is amused by their struggle, a man who uses their love for each other as a way to make them suffer further — sometimes hurting one physically to damage the other psychologically. These parallels work well for the narrative overall, but it’s a complicated process to focus on them and not on the slightly hollow world of Caraval with its fairly illogical logic. Even a made-up world within a made-up world needs rules that makes sense and Caraval’s rules don’t always make sense at all. It’s easy to explain that away by insisting that the very nature of the game is to be confusing and arbitrary, but that’s not enough.

It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world.— Excerpt from the book

The problem with Caraval is that it wants to be more than it is. Movie rights for the book have already been sold in a major deal to 20th Century Fox, but the story follows a grand tradition of carny-lit that it just cannot come up to par with. It is a good-natured attempt with many of the right elements, but they just don’t fit well together. Sisterhood, female friendship, duplicitous philanderers, possible magic, dangerous liaisons and many secrets all wrapped up in the rich, burlesque world of a carnival should make for an excellent story, but Caraval leaves a little to be desired even with all the right ingredients in place.

The reviewer is a book critic and editor of the Apex Book of World SF 4. She also hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Caraval
By Stephanie Garber
Hodder &
Stoughton, UK
ISBN: 978-1473629141
402pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 4th, 2017