Caraval: Book Review

Caraval by Stephanie Garber published in 2017.

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“Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over. But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.”

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When people talk about Christmas magic, I doubt that they’re talking about the same kind of magic found in Caraval.

The main protagonist Scarlett lives on island Trisda with her little sister Donatella and their abusive father, who also happens to be the Governor of this small island. Scarlett has been writing letters to a man by the name of Legend, the leader of a spectacular called Caraval, a game that melds fiction and reality together with a winner that is granted a magical prize. After seven years of writing letters with no response, three invitations to Caraval arrive in the mail, one for each of the sisters and a special guest of their choice. Yet Scarlett is concerned with consequences of disobeying their father and leaving the island, so Donatella enlists the help of a charming sailor, Julian, into forcing her less adventurous sister into seeking the magic of Caraval. When Scarlett arrives with only Julian, she soon discovers that this game centers around finding a kidnapped player, who just happens to be Donatella. Scarlett goes about playing this mysterious game alongside Julian desperately trying to find her sister. The line between what is real and false becomes more blurred as the game continues, and the relationship between Julian and Scarlett grows more complicated.

I have a pretty equal amount of good and bad things to say about this novel, so I might as well get the bad stuff out of the way first and end this review on a good note. The writing style itself was not my favourite and it really affected how I absorbed the story. I kept comparing it to the likes of a fanfiction; granted not a poorly written fanfiction, but a fanfiction nonetheless. It was high on emotions but not as much on substance. Kind of immature at some points and overall simplistic (simplistic writing can sometimes be a good thing, but in this case, I wasn’t feeling it). From the little fantasy books that I’ve read, I know that there’s a lot more imagery involved than contemporary novels. I’m pleased to say that the imagery was handled well, not too overwhelming but really paints a picture in your mind.

Speaking of its fanfic-ish vibe, the budding romance between Scarlett and Julian was a bit too much for me to handle at some points. Granted, the book is much more than their romance, but the parts in which Scarlett is affected by Julian’s “charming good looks and dashing personality” grow very tiring very quickly for me and I found it quite unrealistic. A lot of damsel in distress vibes that I’m not really into. Even the characters individual personalities were not something that was very desirable in the first place. I mean, I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t necessarily love them either.

Now onto the good stuff. I really liked the entire concept of the Caraval, especially the whole idea of blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This is a very smart theme to incorporate into a story and must have taken the author a lot of planning and storyboarding in order for it all to even out and make sense in the end, so props to Garber on that. It made me feel very immersed in the story since as a reader I was just as clueless about the world as Scarlett was. It kept me on my toes and I appreciate that in a book.

The ending tied things up nicely, even though some scenes leading up to it were somewhat confusing. Although by the time I shut the book most of my major questions were answered yet an air of mystery remained around Caraval that leaves you wanting more. It had a solid cliffhanger that leads nicely to another book, which makes sense since it’s the sequel came out about a year and a half later.

I’m planning on expanding my reading repertoire into some more fantasy based novels, and I think this was a decent introduction to the genre. In regards to me reading the sequel and eventually the last novel in this trilogy, I probably will sometime in the future. It’s not high on my list, but I’ll most likely get to it eventually. I mean, who doesn’t love a good ol’ trilogy?

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What Should Be Wild: Book Review

What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine published in 2018.

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“Cursed. Maisie Cothay has never known the feel of human flesh: born with the power to kill or resurrect at her slightest touch, she has spent her childhood sequestered in her family’s manor at the edge of a mysterious forest. Maisie’s father, an anthropologist who sees her as more experiment than daughter, has warned Maisie not to venture into the wood. Locals talk of men disappearing within, emerging with addled minds and strange stories. What he does not tell Maisie is that for over a millennium her female ancestors have also vanished into the wood, never to emerge—for she is descended from a long line of cursed women. But one day Maisie’s father disappears, and Maisie must venture beyond the walls of her carefully constructed life to find him. Away from her home and the wood for the very first time, she encounters a strange world filled with wonder and deception. Yet the further she strays, the more the wood calls her home.”

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I don’t typically read fantasy novels, so I took a chance with one, and I believe it paid off.

In What Should Be Wild the reader follows a sixteen-year-old girl named Maisie who lives on the Urizon property with her father Peter. She carries the legacy of the Blakely family, made up of women who had gone missing in the forest outside of the same house she lives in. In fact, six of the Blakely women are trapped in a neighbouring dimension of the same forest around Maisie. Oh yeah, did I also mention that any living thing Maisie touches dies, and any dead thing she touches is resurrected? That’s why her father kept her sequestered in the house her whole life, so when Peter goes missing, she and a young boy she barely knows goes out looking for him. What could go wrong? Well, a man might kidnap her and try and drain her of all her blood so he can open the gate to the other world in the forest, that’s what could go wrong. Throughout this journey, Maisie grows as a young woman and gains new experiences that she was denied her whole life.

Such an important aspect of a book is the opening line—it grabs the reader’s attention and tempts them deeper into the story. The first line of this book does just that when it states,

“They grew me inside my mother, which was unusual, because she was dead.”

This sentence doesn’t only shock the reader, but slightly confuses them as well. Yet it’s the perfect quantity of confusion, the amount that pushes you to continue and find out more to alleviate this confusion. Actually, most of the book was like this for me, so the first line set a good example of how I felt throughout the entire thing. I’ll talk more about this later.

The narration changes from chapter to chapter, switching from Maisie’s first-person point of view to a third person omniscient view of the women in the woods. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both perspectives and even more the connection between both worlds. For example, when Maisie brought a dead bird back to life, the women saw the same bird limping around in their forest. This is just one of many of the links between Maisie and her ancestors. These chapters were also very short and sweet, which I loved.

Speaking of the six Blakely women, I appreciated all of their diverse personalities and how their era affected their behaviour. They ranged from a rejected five-year-old children with a large birthmark plastered on the side of her face to a promiscuous woman who shamed her family by sleeping with her brother. Another character that peaked my interest was Peter. Peter, in my opinion, has the perfect structure for a character development. He begins has an indifferent father who views his daughter as more of a case study than kin. Yet as the story progresses we learn that his situation is more complex, with the death of his wife and unexpected child that he was forced to raise by himself. We learn about his immense love for Maisie, and how raising her had actually made him a better person. It all comes together when he makes the ultimate sacrifice that the parent archetype is destined to make. This moment brought actual tears to my eyes.  

When it came to the storyline as a whole, as I mentioned before, I was mainly driven by confusion. The numerous amount of times I shook my head, completely befuddled by everything that was happening was rather exhausting. Now, I will say this might be due to my lack of experience in the fantasy genre; I’m not exactly familiar with the format of it all. But I just had so many questions floating around my brain while in the midst of it all. I’m not saying this is a bad thing since this is what kept me reading; so I could find answers to these questions. And for the most part, these questions were answered near the very end. Yet something that irked me is that the whole concept of the “mystic forest” was still rather vague. I can acknowledge the beauty and significance of the woods holding the darker side of Maisie, which is why she was being drawn towards it. Yet one question still lingered heavy in my mind; Why did Rafe want to enter the woods so desperately?

For the most part, though, everything was explained fairly well and all ends were tied together quite neatly. Everything was connected and simple notions proved to be more symbolic than previously imagined (and you know I love me some symbolism). This is definitely a book that I would enjoy rereading so I could pinpoint the moments that confused me on the first read.

This was a solid fairytale with hints of romance and action. It covers themes of loneliness and hopelessness as well as paints a beautiful coming of age story that anyone can relate to. Fine has a way of stringing words together in a majestic way that almost hypnotizes the reader further into her magnificent world. I was astonished by her ability to conjure up colourful images and witty dialogue, and overall very intrigued by the sinister yet inspiring narrative. I would recommend this book to people who aren’t particularly familiar with fantasy novels as a fine introduction to this genre. (Get it? Fine? Like Julia Fine? Nevermind). So if you’re interested in jumping into a modern fairytale, go pick up a copy of What Should Be Wild.

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