I actually ended up really, really enjoying CARAVAL, and part of that enjoyment was because of the reasons so many people hated it. The purple prose-- while cheesy at times, was incredibly evocative and had some really compelling imagery that I felt lent a lot to the fantasy setting. The endless parade of hot boys and fan service-- also yes, but it had the self-indulgent steaminess of a 90s Zebra romance, where even though it's so over the top that you half-expect to see a Fabio in a puffy shirt gracing the book jacket somewhere, it also offers fan service from the female gaze, a truckload of pretty dresses, and some pretty solid romance.
And honestly, I love a good fantasy romance. I grew up with authors like Gail Carson Levine, Vivian Vande Velde, and Diana Wynne Jones, and in the age of the Triple Barrelled Fantasy Women's Canon™, the kidlit crew knew that what girls wanted to read was girls going out into the world, kicking butt and maybe also falling in love. I feel like a lot of fantasy authors try to capture that same magic these days, but they either go too dry and don't have any romance because they're trying to be Taken More Seriously™, or they go full ham on the romance, to the point where they kind of forget about what makes fantasy so much fun in the first place: the immersion and the wonder and the adventure.
The plot of CARAVAL is, at heart, pretty simple. Scarlett and Donatella live on a colonized island in a world where everything, inexplicably, has Spanish names. And side note: I found it hilarious that everything had Spanish names because (FUN FACT), I speak Spanish, and some of the translations were interesting. Like Castillo Maldito (which can be interpreted several ways, one of which is incredibly funny), or Del Ojos Beach, which should just be Playa Del Ojos probably. ANYWAY, everything is Spanish and life in Spanishland sucks. Because the girls' father is super abusive, in a way that is actually probably going to be triggering for a lot of people. Scarlett is in an arranged marriage with a man she has never met, and she's hoping to use him to take her and her sister away forever. But fate yields other plans: specifically, in the form of three magical tickets to Caraval, a traveling circus/carnival where people have to basically complete an obstacle course to win a prize.
Knowing their father will be furious if she goes, Scarlett intends on getting rid of the tickets and sticking with the marriage, because she is boring and safe and predictable. But Donatella is an impulsive, selfish jerk, and her plan involves kidnapping her sister and forcing her to go to Carnival Island. Only that doesn't really go that well-- because GUESS WHAT. Donatella is the prize of this year's obstacle course, and Scarlett has to find her to win. And if she doesn't find her, bad things might happen. What is real? What is the Matrix? What is Inception? WHAT IS CARAVAL? Also, there's a hot but potentially dangerous sailor named Julian to help her on her quest, and in addition to Julian "Why Can't My Shirt Stay On For More Than Five Minutes™" McSailor, there's about four or five other hot but potentially dangerous hot guys, who will either help or hinder with their hotness. Woohoo.
I actually liked the world-building a lot. I felt like it had the same fun-with-a-dark-underside vibes as things like Coraline or MirrorMask. I actually wish it had been just a little more sinister and fantastical, but for what it was, I thought it was a lot of fun. I did not see THE MAGIC CIRCUS similarities at all. Labyrinth, yes. Forbidden Game, yes (I mean the hero's name is even Julian). It was even a little reminiscent of WHAT DREAMS DESCEND, although that was a book I really had to struggle through and they had roughly the same page count. Without spoilers, I will agree that the last 20% of the book and especially the last 10% were a little "what, huh?" It felt like the author really scrambled to wrap the book up in a risk-free way, but it didn't really work. The prologue is also clear sequel-baiting, which is not a big deal to me since I already own the full trilogy, but I bet it was frustrating to get through 400+ pages of book when this first came out and still have the majority of one's questions either not answered, or deflected in a way that it basically felt like the same thing.
But despite all that, I DID enjoy the book-- a lot. And I am definitely going to be reading those sequels. There are a lot of YA adaptations where I'm like, "Why did this need to be on the big screen?" But a movie of this book, I would actually watch and probably really enjoy. Because I love trash.
4 to 4.5 out of 5 stars