Set in a lush, fantasy world reminiscent of The Night Circus, Caraval by Stephanie Garber is one of 2017’s most buzzed-about books.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval—Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.
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.
I always worry when books are as hyped as Caraval has been; and though this book has its faults, Garber definitely delivers plenty to love in this dreamy, Gothic fantasy.
The world of Caraval is seductive, tantalizing, and steeped in danger and mystery. Are the events that unfold here real, or just part of the game? What is true and what is just pretend? The lines between reality and fantasy are deeply blurred, and even the ending leaves you questioning just what exactly has transpired — and what more is still to come. (Yes, Caraval is the first in a series. This is good to know going into the book, as the ending leaves plenty of loose threads open for the next story to explore.)
Garber’s descriptions of the characters, settings, and emotions are lush and rich, bringing the world vividly to life. Everything has a soft, dreamy quality about it – although there are certainly scenes where that dreaminess turns to nightmare. This darkly romantic, magical world is, perhaps, Caraval’s biggest selling point. It leaves open so many possibilities, and the fantasy holds much allure.
Deception is a key part of the plot line in Caraval, but I felt frustrated when that deception played on too much. Garber plays around a lot with perceptions and reality, and makes both Scarlett and her readers question what’s real and what isn’t. It makes for an intriguing and captivating story, but ultimately, I felt like it also made me extremely frustrated as a reader. I needed some basis of understanding for this world to exist in my mind — and too often, I felt like I was having the rug pulled out from me. It was not just one deception, but many — and so I was left feeling a little betrayed. It was more than just a surprise twist; there were so many twists and reveals, and then counter-reveals, it stopped feeling clever and more like I was just being blatantly lied to.
It was also frustrating and disappointing to see so many apparent weaknesses in the relationship between Scarlett and Tella. For a book that teases “an unbreakable bond between two sisters,” it often felt as if Scarlett and Tella were at odds with each other and with what they wanted. Tella, in particular, came off as selfish and spoiled, while Scarlett alone seemed willing to make the bigger sacrifice for her sister’s behalf.
All that is to say, I still found Caraval an enchanting and entertaining read — but not, perhaps, as perfect as the hype would have you believe. If you’re intrigued, discover Caraval for yourself when it hits store shelves on January 31st.