All hail ‘Caraval,’ and all hail the YA novel

Monday, February 6, 2017 - 4:47pm

Much of the stigma surroundING young adult novels is undeserved. People point to the tired tropes of the most laughable YA novels as being representative of the whole genre — love triangles, mean boys in leather jackets with secret crushes, bland female protagonists named Elektra or Aurora or whatever, nouns being unnecessarily capitalized in the place of actual worldbuilding, etc. And yes, these tropes are pervasive and annoying, but they’re window dressing. They’re never at the heart of what makes teenagers love young adult books.

Cliché is not the same as bad. If this were true, then I guess we all would really hate “Star Wars.” After all, it’s home to all those dumb tropes like love triangles, mean boys in leather jackets and the egregiously capitalized Empire and Republic. Many of the surface-level YA criticisms have much more to do with derision of teenage girls and the things made for/written by women than they do concerns over actual literary quality, but I digress.

What I’m trying to get at here is that a book that features corsets and enchantments and not one, but two mean boys in leather jackets with hidden hearts of gold, is not inherently dumb or bad. Silly? Yes. Ridiculous wish-fulfillment fantasy? Absolutely. Fun as hell? But of course.

Stephanie Garber’s “Caraval” is 400 pages of pure pulp joy. The protagonist, Scarlett (spoiler: she wears many red dresses, because of course she does) is the daughter of a powerful, ruthless and violent man who terrorizes her and her sister Tella (short for Donatella, because of course it is). Scarlett is engaged to be married to a man she has never met, but she secretly dreams of seeing Caraval, an annual performance where the audience participates in a Hunger Games minus the murder (well, kind of) style of competition. Caraval is a weeklong experience in which participants stay on a magical island where they solve a series of riddles, competing to see who can get to the end of the puzzle first. With the help of the mysterious sexpot sailor Julian (Leather Jacket Boy #1), Scarlett and Tella are whisked away to the show, where Tella is immediately kidnapped by the magical mastermind Legend, who is also the organizer of the event. In this year’s competition, whoever finds Tella first is the winner of the Caraval. It’s up to Scarlett, with the help of Julian, to find Tella and return home in time for her wedding.

“Caraval” is so easy to poke fun of. In this novel, there is no such thing as too many adjectives or too many synonyms for the color red (“cerise”? Really?). There is — no joke — a character named Dante (Leather Jacket Boy #2, duh) who has completely unironic tattoos of black roses and falcons on the backs of his hands and neck. There are many, many extended sequences of Scarlett and Leather Jacket Boys being forced into increasingly hilarious situations where they have to stand really really close together and make breathtaking eye contact. At one point, Scarlett says the word “scoundrel” with complete sincerity, and LJB#1 is honestly offended.

And yet, Stephanie Garber is no dummy. She knows exactly what kind of book she’s writing and never shies away from the ridiculousness. Garber works entirely within familiar YA story structures, but she clearly understands exactly how to maximize traditional narratives to be their very best. Every character is well-developed, interesting and complicated (except for Dante, but I mean, the dude’s name is Dante. It would be a little redundant if he had a personality). The relationships, though predictable, develop organically and believably. And the plot twists may be numerous, but they make sense and work within the larger story. Structurally, this book is precisely written and airtight in its construction, building in momentum by the page.  

“Caraval” has its flaws, and it may be silly, but it works. A functional, entertaining and effective story is no easy thing to write, especially within traditional YA frameworks, from which people often expect the worst. It’s melodramatic and deeply entertaining. Ridiculous and glorious. All hail “Caraval.” Here to remind us just how weird and wonderful YA can be.