I reserve five-star ratings for works so close to flawlessly crafted as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and Harry Potter. So when I decided on five stars for Caraval after only several moments’ hesitation, I knew I have to write a sound review, if only to assure myself that my discernment had not rusted away after such a long spell of mediocre fiction. To be clear, my ratings are strictly personal; if I were to rate an acclaimed classic such as, say, Lord of the Flies, I would unabashedly give it one or two stars. So while the cultural significance is still a factor (as I am sure it is for many readers), my own enjoyment of the plot, prose, characters and unique (or not so unique) universes is what ultimately decides my ratings.
Out of the novels that I have rated, the determinant that separated almost all ‘very good’ books from five-star status was the pacing. I gave The Night Circus only four stars because despite the sublime (an understatement) descriptions of the titular circus, somewhere along the journey, I grew as tired of the competition as the protagonists did. The intricate details became bothersome distractions, the build-up to the inevitable central romance too slow. A more recent candidate, A Darker Shade of Magic, suffered from a similar problem. The frequent shifts to less riveting perspectives created unnecessary delays, kindling frustration more than they did constructive suspense. Admittedly, some of the books that I did give five stars to do not have perfect pacing either (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was an especially slow read in the series), but it was not to an extent where the exceptional creativity or meticulous world-building and plot planning could not more than make up for it.
In the early hours of yesterday, I finished Caraval in one sitting. In itself, that may not prove good pacing. But this story flew – I was not even remotely tempted to skim over a single passage or flip to a more action-packed page (a terrible habit that occurs with the overwhelming majority of books I read; patience is not one of my virtues). The lists of wondrous items typical when setting fantasy scenes or the protagonist’s indecisive monologues were never too drawn out. Nor were the chases and fights, of which the difficulty to write succinct (yet sufficiently well-matched and theatrical) ones is far too often under appreciated. There was enough to show the author’s thoughtfulness, but not so much that it became pretentious or amateur.
The idea of a game or performance blending magic and reality is not novel, but the premise of Caraval was original enough to make this interpretation feel completely unlike anything I have read before. And the distinction between what was real and what was not became so increasingly blurred that I began to second-guess almost every explanation and event. For every reveal, another twist lay in wait. This ‘meta’ element of mystery was a major contributor to the book’s appeal, which, on top of all the mysteries embedded in the actual plot, sealed Caraval’s place as an exceptionally compelling story. And like Victoria Schwab, Stephanie Garber has a knack for knowing exactly when to reward her readers with answers. Questions ranged from being answered just a few paragraphs later to taking the entire book for the puzzle pieces to fall into place.
In a book where the impossible is possible, there is always the unfortunate threat of a deus ex machina happy ending. Thankfully, that did not happen in Caraval. I was sceptical in the final chapters, but the justifications were convincing and consistent with the capabilities and limitations that the rest of the novel had hinted at. Where there were slightly dubious explanations, or where the characters’ actions were contrived [highlight to reveal spoiler] (such as the reasons Julian gave in the tunnels and when Tella was driven to commit suicide), it ended up legitimate because it was all an ingenious ruse in the first place. In fact, retrospectively, the vague sense of something being ‘off’ was what made the book so incredibly brilliant. It was the perfect tightrope walk between where small but significant cracks could leave room for actual deception and where the reader could still easily brush it off as paranoia from the preceding plot twists.
As for the romance, the author was wise to keep it a supplement rather than the all-consuming focal point. Although the characters’ determined denial of their obvious chemistry would have been infuriatingly petty and cliché in many other books, the twisted lies the sisters were told for most of their lives, the manipulative nature of the game and the oft repeated warning to ‘not get too carried away’ were very sound reasons for caution. Not to mention [highlight to reveal spoiler] Julian’s express instructions to not encourage any romantic interest. The reasons for their mutual attraction were also much more meaningfully fleshed out than the all-too-common ‘two attractive people happened to be thrown together for a dangerous adventure’. The romance was responsible for the weakest passages (some were amateurish and abrupt), but all things considered, it added to the book more than it took away.
My other minor complaint was that Aiko was little more than a stock ‘enigmatic Far East Asian’. But she was at least less cringeworthy than the flat stereotype that Tsukiko was in The Night Circus. Hopefully this review adequately justifies my five-star rating relatively concisely. If you are in the mood for an immersive melange of mysteries bottled in a spectacular adventure, disguised alternately as a murderous race and a magnificent performance, I wholeheartedly recommend Caraval.
Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟