“The carnival pulsed in the centre of The City – a swirl of masked pleasure and violence. All around the carnival, transactions of varying degrees of legality and ethical questionability were happening. The City wasn’t a world that seemed beautiful to everyone. It was their world, though”
As an avid fan of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series, as well as her short stories, I was eager to pick up her latest YA title, Carnival of Souls, especially as it was a departure from her work with fae, instead focusing on daimons and witches (her adult novel, Graveminder, focuses on revenants/ghosts, so Marr is close to tackling all the popular supernatural creatures!) Having recently read and enjoyed Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, I was also momentarily convinced that this novel might house a similar atmosphere – especially as it seemed that masks were involved.
But where Morgenstern concerned herself with performance art in the traditional setting of a touring circus, Marr’s carnival was a decadent, dark and violent market of sorts, trading in all forms of nefarious wares, and basing itself around the bloody and brutal ‘Competition’. This where many readers might well draw comparisons to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, as two of our protagonists are contestants in this ‘Competition’, fighting fellow daimons often to the death for the chance to raise their social status and gain access to a better life.
Both Kaleb (daimon) and Ayra (part witch, part daimon) fight for very different reasons, and with contrasting methods, but ultimately their motivations are to gain wealth, social freedom and personal success. You can certainly empathise with them both to a certain extent, with Kaleb wanting better living conditions for lower-caste daimons and Ayra wanting independence and power as a female, but personality-wise both characters struggled to deliver enough likeability and warmth for me to connect to them.
The same could also be said of the novel’s third protagonist, the ‘human’ teenager Mallory. Marr initially sets up to focus more on Mallory’s narrative in the real world, which would be an understandable touchstone for the reader in between the fantastical setting of the Carnival. However, Mallory quickly fades into the background, all the while seeming to shift personality traits and attitudes, resulting in a very inconsistent portrait. The romance between Mallory and Adam was also tinged with some troubling power dynamics, which could never fully be explained away by the daimon lore that supposedly governed some of Adam’s decisions.
I have always always respected Marr for presenting readers with incredibly flawed, morally grey characters, but for the most part, almost everybody in Carnival of Souls was either insanely self-centered, astoundingly naive, or just unnecessarily cruel. I wanted to understand them and their motives but it was quite a struggle.
The overall feel of the novel was one of incompletion, which makes me wonder if perhaps many changes were made in between the proof I read, and the final published product. It just felt like I was simply looking upon the skeleton of the larger work; there was too much repetition of phrases and sentiments, too much inconsistency between the shifting points-of-view, too vague a construction of the mythology concerned, and too little control in the tone of the piece for it to be satisfying. I have no doubt, with its themes of forbidden love, struggles against tyrannical power, and a bloody battle between mythological beings, that Carnival of Souls will find fans in many readers. I just wish I could have been one of them!
Carnival of Souls – Melissa Marr
Harper Collins Australia
ISBN – 0061659282
September 4th 2012