Book review: Melissa Marr’s “Carnival of Souls”

From 2007 to 2011, Melissa Marr was a constant presence on bestseller lists, thanks to the five books that make up her “Wicked Lovely” series.

Through “Wicked Lovely,” “Ink Exchange,” “Fragile Eternity,” “Radiant Shadows,” and “Darkest Mercy”, Marr introduced readers to the world of the Faery Courts, where mythical creatures plot and plan against each other and struggle against the machinations of Bananach, the embodiment of war.

After achieving so much success writing faery tales — “Wicked Lovely” peaked at number two on the New York Times Bestseller Lists, while “Ink Exchange” was a Locus Recommended Read — one wouldn’t fault Marr if she kept on doing so.

However, her latest book, “Carnival of Souls”, is certainly something different. Marr takes a break from the world of the fae and introduces readers to The City, a place populated by daimons and where danger, deception, and violence is the norm.

But will Marr’s decision to take on a new world that readers may not be familiar with prove to be a wise one? Will “Carnival of Souls” blaze a new path for Marr, or would she have been better off sticking to what worked in the past?

Marr, Melissa - Carnival of Souls

“Carnival of Souls” tells the stories of Aya, Kaleb, and Mallory, three teenagers whose lives are being drawn closer to each other by the political machinations and power plays constantly happening in The City’s Carnival of Souls.

Aya, a noble-born woman seeking to change the way things are done in The City, has entered in the Carnival of Souls’ male-dominated  Competition, where the winner gains a place in the ruling class and an opportunity to shape the way things are run in the chaos that is The City.

As the Competition runs its course, Aya crosses paths with Kaleb, a lower caste daimon fighting for a better life for himself and his packmate, Zevi. To make ends meets, Kaleb has been offering his services as an assasin, and one of his jobs has taken him into the human world, where he is tasked to kill Mallory, the daughter of Marchosias, the most powerful daimon in The City.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Mallory has no idea of her true daimon nature. Spirited away from The City as a baby, Mallory has been raised by withces and told all her life that daimons are things to be feared and destroyed. Despite that, she finds herself growing closer and closer to Kaleb.

Circumstances bring these three disparate people together, and the distrust they have for each other is certainly mutual. But as far more powerful forces than either one of them start to converge, Aya, Kaleb, and Mallory must learn to trust each other if they are to survive.

It’s abundantly clear form the first few chapters what the biggest strength of “Carnival of Souls” is — Marr’s ability to craft a tangled plot criss-crossed with power plays, political maneuvering, and backdoor deals that seem to abound in the tumult of The City. It’s hugely entertaining keeping track of who’s allied to whom, and the constant wheeling and dealing adds another layer of tensions to the one already built-in to the Competition.

It’s also wonderful that the people who populate The City and move the plot along are also such great characters. Aya is a study in complexity, and it’s fascinating to read about her inner conflict as she grapples with her desire for power and respect and her love for her former betrothed, Belias.

Adam, Mallory’s witch stepfather, is a pleasure to read as well. Deeply flawed but also deeply protective of his stepdaughter, her actions throughout the book will have readers raising their eyebrows and maybe even their voices in consternation.

The City, while not as fleshed out as one would like, is still likely to engross readers with its brand of danger and deceit. Pain and pleasure coexist side by side in The City. It’s something its citizens seem to enjoy all the more because of the constant threat of the Untamed Lands knocking right on their doorstep.

Marr should also be commended for the unflinching way that she depicts the savageness that exists in The City. Kaleb and Zevi have had to murder and whore themselves to survive, and Aya is working against a society that is deeply masochistic. Their lives and what they go through may not be pretty to look at, but one certainly can’t look away.

“Carnival of Souls” does have some missteps, foremost of which is the character of Mallory. It’s hard to root for her the way Marr has written her — someone devoid of her own choices and whose concerns seem to revolve only around Kaleb and Adam throughout the course of the novel.

There is also the fact that Marr’s engaging plot isn’t matched by equally engaging prose. More often that not, the words on the page come off as dry and listless, completely out of sync with the quick-moving plot. If the readers keep on turning the pages, it certainly isn’t for the prose.

“Carnival of Souls” ends on a cliffhanger, and while there is certainly enough plot to fill another book, the question is whether the book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses enough for readers to want to have another go. As it is, the series has a 50/50 chance.

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