This was a hard decision for me. For one, these are two works of YA fiction which would be hard to make more different from each other. For another, I love the world-building in both, as well as the language which reflects the style of each world. To boot, I have my own inclinations that might happen to be skewed less toward that of mass-appeal, and feel like I waffle between both for different reasons, even now. See, I have a penchant for science fiction and stories with dry humor and irony (Landscape), as well as shorter works. I also tend not to like cliched or cheesy romance that has not had time to develop, yet has to take itself ultra-seriously as a plot-point (Caraval).
Landscape with Invisible Hand by M T Anderson
I love M.T. Anderson’s works, his directness, natural commentary on modern life without being heavy-handed, and that he requires a little more abstraction and working the imagination-muscle. Like his Feed, the sci-fi aspects (the aliens, setting, etc.) don’t take center stage but are a framework for the characters, relationship and dialogue. Contrasted to Caraval’s omniscient, candid tell-all narrative, more is left unsaid but still understood – the author gives context and atmosphere that allow the feelings and tension he wants to convey, to sink in. He has so many phrases which are gems, at the same time keeping much of the writing grounded in a doggedly mundane, real unreality (as opposed to Caraval’s beautiful, unreal-unreality). This might leave the story feeling sparse or tedious for some, but I think it’s great for older teens who appreciate irony and stories that are not action-packed or visually “pretty.” Similar to how the Alex award features adult books that will find teen readership; I would put this in a category of YA books that could have special appeal for adults.
In Landscape, Adam and Chloe have grown to dislike each other but continue to act as fake-boyfriend/girlfriend in something analogous to a pay-per-view youtube channel providing entertainment for the vuvv, aliens who have taken over Earth. The vuvv are in a position of power, taking advantage of the broken human economy. For instance, while the vuvv have the cure to every disease, very few humans can get good jobs or afford to pay for things like medical treatment. Adam, a painter, decides to enter a vuvv art contest with a hefty prize, choosing to risk painting the landscapes he loves, rather than what the vuvv are known to like. With such a cool premise, I feel like it could’ve been expanded and developed more.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
If Anderson’s use of language and descriptions in Landscape is sometimes spartan, Garber’s is baroque. Highly readable, Garber creates a delicious visual escapade, painted so vividly it goes down smooth as a milkshake (with psychedelic sprinkles). The setting of Caraval plays as important a role as any character. Sisters Scarlet and Tella end up separated at Caraval – something of a carnival in a city, or a city in a carnival. Intending to only stay one day, they’re stranded for five in a game where magic and fantasy blend with reality. It’s hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Readers will enjoy large doses of action, romance, family issues (complex sisterly love and their struggle against an abusive father who also plays cruel games). They will rub elbows with characters who manipulate, question who to trust, question their senses and the price of their sanity. You won’t just remember what happened – you’ll remember colors vibrant with emotion, smells, sounds, tastes, the feel of temperature, different fabrics and pressure of touch. This is a place you want to spend time in, and while you’re there, uncover history and clues to a high-stakes competition. Granted, this is only the first in the series, I felt there was a lot of intrigue and repetition about how fantastical Caraval was, but I wanted the book to show me more of this rather than talk around it, in the places it did. Perhaps the author was just saving some surprises for the sequel(s). Just like the five days they spend at Caraval, it seems to go by too fast.
And the winner is…
Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Despite my personal tastes, I had to go with Caraval as the winner for this round, because I think it offers more to more readers (and more types of readers) than Landscape With Invisible Hand.