Published by Flatiron Books on January 31st 2017
Pages: 407 •Goodreads
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 was heavily marketed as pretty much THE BOOK of 2017, coming out in the first month of the year with an outrageous amount of hype. Usually I would be super wary of any book released under such circumstances, but I found myself SO excited to read this one after meeting Stephanie, attending the launch, and seeing how genuinely excited she was about her book finally making it into readers’ hands. I’m happy to report that I found Caraval to be utterly enchanting and strangely unique, and it’s nearly topped the list of fantasy worlds that I would eagerly volunteer to inhabit.
More accessible than many fantasy novels, Caraval definitely has its unique elements that place it outside the realm of contemporary, but it still feels connected to the normal or “mortal” world with its beginnings on the small island where Scarlett and Donatella begin their story.There’s a map at the beginning of the book but the world building isn’t touched on too much (I could see how some would view this as a negative aspect, but I think it was fitting because it placed more of the focus on Caraval and made the game feel much more intimate and real for the reader rather than the real world, which is how the characters feel while in the midst of the game). Once the girls enter the game, the narrative takes on such lush and breathtaking settings that felt so unique to me and unlike anything I’ve come across in YA. The book was heavily marketed with a “circus” vibe, but I would liken it more to that of a carnival, where everything is sparkly and enchanting and mesmerizing under the cloak of darkness, which can mask its more decrepit or sinister elements that might appear if you look too closely (this carnival esque feeling was reinforced for me by the fact that the players could only participate during the evening and were supposed to sleep during the day). There’s also a definite Venice vibe with the canals in lieu of streets, cobbled walkways and quaint shops. Garber truly impressed me with her ability to imagine a setting so vibrant that it managed to stand out among the plethora of other YA fantasy novels.
When I started the book I was immediately impressed by the beautiful and creative formatting of the book, especially the pages of letters between Legend and Scarlett, which set the tone of the rest of the story nicely. I loved how the book was broken into the five nights of Caraval, which helped to provide a coherent timeline which was important for following the “game” and keeping the progression of events straight. With a story like this it’s so important to be able to keep track of everything that’s going on, and the unique formatting managed to assist readers with this task in a creative and playful way.
Caraval is a debut, and that element of the writing comes through in certain instances. Garber’s character development, for example, varies across the large cast of Caraval players. Scarlett and Donatella both felt a bit one note (Donatella rather obnoxiously flippant and reckless, Scarlett frustratingly reserved and prone to repeating the same mistakes). Their sisterly bond also didn’t feel as authentic as I would have hoped, as readers are more often told that the sisters are close rather than shown. Their is also very little context to the antagonist, their father, especially considering the amount of violence he is prone to inflicting and the amount of terror he inspires in his dughters. Other characters, however, were wonderfully enigmatic and vibrant, such as Julian (who’s motives are tricky to work out) or the ever-elusive legend. Garber’s strengths seem to lean more toward writing mysterious characters, however I am hoping the sisters will have more of a chance for growth in Caraval’s sequel!
Overall: This book is the epitome of a book that cultivates its own unique aesthetic. It’s lurid and lush and bright and dark all at the same time (and totally reminiscent of a Baz Luhrmann movie, just as Stephanie said she hoped it would be). I had the amazing sensation while reading it that I was IN the game but also watching all of the players get caught up in magic that overtook reality through the lens of a magical bystander over a magical arena. A truly unique read in a time in YA where repetition of plot and ideas is prevalent, Caraval was stunning and I can’t wait for the sequel!