by Stephanie Garber
Whatever you've heard about Caraval, it doesn't compare to the reality. It's more than just a game or a performance. It's the closest you'll ever find to magic in this world . . .
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever.
Caraval is as beautiful a story as the cover leads one to believe. The cover is what first drew my eye as I saw it splattered across bookstagram. With rich red and blue notes scattered among a starry, black background, it was designed to catch the eye just as the Caraval of the book is meant to. The quote atop the book immediately catches one's attention as well, and promises some kind of dark twist and depth: "Remember, it's only a game..." Once I cracked open the book and read the opening line—a single, brief sentence in a whole page—I was hooked.
It has now been nearly three weeks since I finished, and I can't stop thinking about it or longing to pick it up again (which is impossible as I've already started lending it to my friends/family). Caraval blew my mind with its sheer tangibility; the pictures that formed in my head, the characters that became so real, and the masterful pacing/plot are only three elements that made it stand apart. In fact, I can boldly say that this is my new, favorite stand-alone contemporary novel (though there was room for a sequel in the end so...fingers crossed!)
Let's talk setting. Stephanie Garber manages to paint such a crystal clear, unique world that it's impossible not to feel as though Caraval is right there before your eyes. The protagonist, Scarlett, tends to feel and see things in vivid color (for example, if she's happy she might see a certain yellow). It paints a glorious picture and based off the colors or the way Scarlett interacts with the world around her, one can easily pick up on her mood. The mark of a good setting too, in my opinion, is the ability to create it without over-exposition or narration; to create it in an organic manner interspersed with dialogue, plot, and character development rather than devoting five giant paragraphs to it and then getting back to the scene. This is beautifully done and there are few authors who've managed to capture this effect so clearly.
The characters, meanwhile, are each distinct and clear individuals with believable motives driving their actions. They hesitate, they debate, the act spontaneously, they feel things deeply and complexly, again without rambling exposition or dramatic confusion. You can't help but fall in love with Julian or root for Scarlett or get caught up in the interpersonal connections scattered throughout. My only hope is that the character of Legend is brought to light in the sequel (if one comes), though his own character is stamped from the first page to the last, hovering in the background like the proverbial man behind the curtain, always felt but never seen. A final thought on characters: Garber didn't neglect her minors, which is wonderful because I would personally love to see more of a few of them in a future book. Tella, in particular, is a fascinating set of contradictions dressed in curls. The relationship dynamics between any two or three characters were well-explored as well.
From the outset, the plot of Caraval is deceptively simple: girl goes to save sister in giant game world. The trick, as quoted on the cover, is to remember that it's just a game. Or is it? Without spoilers, this quote is prevalent throughout the novel and applies to each scene, each chapter, even as at every turn it seems less true and more like reality, or vice versa. That is probably my favorite aspect of Caraval: you truly never know what to expect. Within the first two chapters, Garber flipped the old loving, devoted sisters trope on its head as Tella threatens to blame Scarlett for a mistake she'd made without hesitation. Then, the dynamic is flipped right back over within another few minutes. This pattern, or theme, continues through the rest of the book all the way to the very last few lines in a magical array of unexpected twists and turns that I just adored.
This is rare, but I can honestly say that I have no critique or criticism of Stephanie Garber's Caraval. It was full of surprise, hints of magic, romance, dark mystery, and anything else one could possibly long for in a story.