Carnival of Souls is the story of two magical races -- witches and daimons -- that aren't exactly at war with each other, but are definitely not on good terms. Mallory is the daughter of the daimon ruler, but her daimon nature is hidden from her when her mother hides her with Adam, a witch. (None of this is spoilery -- it's revealed in the prologue). Adam raises her human, since she can't pass for a witch (in this story, being a witch is not something you can become; it's an actual separate species), and teaches her to fight, and to hate daimons.
Then, of course, everything gets thrown into chaos when Kaleb -- and other daimons hired by Mallory's true father -- find her.
Carnival of Souls switches between many points-of-view: Mallory, Kaleb, Aya, and also snippets of Adam, Belias (Aya's former betrothed), and Zevi (Kaleb's packmate). It's all third-person, so it's not confusing, but I'm not sure the single chapters from the secondary characters' POVs were really necessary. Mallory, Kaleb, and Aya would have been plenty. The others are interesting but superfluous. Maybe they were included because those characters will play bigger roles in the sequel(s), but I think in that case, we could still have waited until the sequels to hear from them.
Mallory is the axle around which the entire story revolves, and the problem with this is that she is the weakest character. Her back story is fascinating: a daimon child, heir to the ruler, raised by a witch who loves her as his own, ignorant of her own nature and taught to hate her kind. Unfortunately, every time we visit Mallory's POV, her thoughts revolve around one of three things:
1) Kaleb, the fluttery feelings he causes, and the fact that she can't date him
2) Wondering what her father stole from the daimon ruler that's causing them to be pursued (spoiler: it's her)
3) "I hate daimons. They're so terrible. I hope I never meet one."
And these are all valid things for her to be thinking about, but it starts getting old after a while when she keeps not growing as a character. She learns new things, sure, but nothing that really changes her or helps her evolve. I can only find her constant incorrect observations ironic for so long. Then I need her to have some sort of revelation that changes how she views the world. Which she does, eventually, but by then it feels like too little, too late.
Fortunately, Kaleb and Aya are much more interesting and well developed. Kaleb was my favorite, because his character had the most depth. He was a fierce and merciless fighter in the Carnival (which is nothing like a real carnival, FYI), but a gentle and protective packmate to Zevi (which, to clear up the whole "packmate" thing -- daimons are basically werewolves). He, like most daimons, hates witches, but finds he can make exceptions in certain cases. He has no qualms with engaging in morally questionable (or abhorrent) activities to support himself and Zevi, but he tries to be an upstanding guy with Mallory. And it all works.
Aya, I can't really get into here without spoiling some big reveals, but suffice it to say that she had her own interesting developments that made me eager to learn more about her character. She wasn't quite as multi-faceted as Kaleb, but she was close.
The world-building and the action in this book was spot-on. The world of The City was gritty and dark and violent, and it was a great contrast to Mallory's life in the familiar human world. And the fights in the Competition were disturbingly vivid. Yes, there were some points when certain aspects of their violent lifestyle didn't quite ring true -- at one point, Kaleb has a rib sticking out through his skin, but after having it literally hammered back into place (someone's been going to The Dark Knight Rises school of chiropractic care), he's cool to stroll around with just a bit of soreness. Maybe this is in part due to his daimon nature, but it made me want to call shenanigans. But overall, I thought it was a fascinating and creative world, and I liked how it was portrayed.
This story was a quick, easy read. Melissa Marr's prose flows comfortably, and I was kept engaged throughout the entire book.
Then there was the ending, which left me kind of disappointed. The whole book felt like it was building up to a central revelation, and then it happens, and it's rather anticlimactic. The reactions I expected were simply not there. Plus, a late-stage development is thrown in a few chapters before the end, which is obviously supposed to set up a sequel, but seemed to prevent this book from achieving any satisfying closure. There are several big plot arcs set up in this story, and most of them were left dangling by the end. I'm fine with having a central conflict span multiple books, but I need for the first book in a series to resolve most of its secondary arcs while still leaving the overarching one open. And this one just left almost all of them open. It leaves me feeling like I just read a really long prologue instead of a novel, and I don't like to finish a book with that feeling.
Overall, I thought the story was promising, full of excitement and action and dark creativity. It just didn't fully live up to its potential. However, the storytelling was engaging enough, and the world and characters interesting enough, that I will come back for the sequel.