Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime.
Rating: 4/5 stars
Caraval promised danger, intrigue, magic, mystery, and romance all packed into a deadly game. And it delivered…for the most part.
I never would have pegged this as a debut work. Stephanie Garber’s writing reads with a mastery typically achieved through years of practice. Her prose is reminiscent of the Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater or a Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor; needless to say, it was very easy to get lost in the story. As impressive as it was for a debut novel, there were still some major problems.
Scarlett and Tella
My least favorite character was sadly our protagonist, Scarlett Dragna. Scarlett and her sister, Donatella (Tella), have grown up in fear of their abusive father. While Tella became spirited and willful in the face of this abuse, Scarlett bowed to the abuse growing timid, prim, and quite honestly bland. I spent the entire book rooting for her to blossom into a more confident character that took control of her future and was disappointed for the most part. Scarlett’s constant worrying and her determination to let everyone know she was “good” was frustratingly boring. I think this book would have been infinitely better told from Tella’s rebellious and clever point of view.
I did really appreciate Stephanie Garber incorporating a realistic bond between sisters. Their father has a unique brand of abuse: he punishes the other sister when one disobeys. This causes them to grow up not only as sisters and best friends but as fiercely protective of each other. The sibling loyalty is admirable even though at points Scarlett’s constant “I only care about my sister. My sister. My sister. My sister.” can be a bit annoying (again I would love to see this book written from Tella’s POV).
Julian was one of my favorite characters. He was charming, infuriating, mysterious, the perfect swoon-worthy romantic interest. The chemistry between Julian and Scarlett is OTP gold from day one. My absolute favorite relationship trope is enemies-to-friends-to-lovers and you can’t do that much better than Julian and Scarlett. I spent the entire novel questioning whether Julian was manipulating or protecting Scarlett. This may have weakened the foundation for their relationship in some people’s minds, but for me, it added an excellent element of suspense.
The world of Caraval was a complete tease for me. The narrative picks up on the Isle of Trisda where Scarlett and Tella have been trapped their whole lives. There are mentions of empires and far away islands, hints at political intrigue and a complex fantasy world; however, Caraval exists in a very microscopic setting. I doubt that I would be so disappointed by the lack of worldbuilding if there had not been a little taste at the beginning. What’s the law system? History? How does magic work and is it limited to Caraval? I was left with SO many unanswered questions.
Caraval itself is rather captivating—a land full of decadent magic and illusions. The magical wares on sale are entertaining in principle and in price—payment in Caraval is never currency. All the ideas behind Caraval are imaginative and unique; I just wish some of them were better founded.
Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won’t wake up.
Lies, secrets, more lies, manipulation, and a few more well disguised lies. Caraval begins as a sweet, light-hearted tale of adventure and self discovery mixed in with some mystery and suspense but quickly turns darker and more twisted. Scarlett Dragna spends the majority of the book traipsing through Caraval, a scavenger-hunt style game, looking for her sister. The stakes are nothing exceptional early on; Scarlett just wants to get home with her sister and marry the count her father arranged her to wed.
As Scarlett and Julian, who is masquerading as her fiance, embark upon the trials of Caraval, the five clues that supposedly should make the player “question their sanity and all they believe in” prove to be a bit too easy. Most of the clues Scarlett acquires she simply stumbles upon.
The catalyst that speeds up the plot turns out to be the protagonist’s death (how often do we get to say that?). After dying for a day, Scarlett is sent a dream that reveals the darker undercurrent of this year’s Caraval. Tella is actually in danger, Julian isn’t who she thought he was at all, and Scarlett’s father and mysterious fiance have chased the Dragna sisters to Caraval.
*Disclaimer: Spoilers ahead*
The weakest part of this book was the muddled and confusing conclusion. We are led to believe that Legend is the villain dead set on revenge throughout most of the novel. He kills Julian and leads Tella to throw herself from a balcony. And then PLOT TWIST: Legend is just an actor, Julian and Tella aren’t really dead, and Tella engineered this entire thing to free them from their father.
This major reveal should have been super emotional, but it was written rather apathetically. I felt disconnected during the most important part of the story. Even if it had been written better, I think the conclusion really weakened the plot. Think about how mind blowing it would have been if Julian was actually Legend? As the story escalated, everything became darker and more complex, yet the conclusion was relatively simple and not very sinister at all. Where was the dark fairytale I was promised? Give me pain, give me heartbreak, give me SOMETHING!!!
On a Side Note
Okay, is it just me or was it majorly weird that Scarlett was sooo loyal to her sister but didn’t think twice about kissing a boy she thought her sister was involved with?? Where was the hesitation? Guilt? Come on people, that’s just not realistic.
It was absolutely beautiful watching Scarlett realize that she did not deserve her father’s rage. This was a wonderful tale of two sisters affected by abuse who didn’t let it ruin or consume them. When Scarlett finally told her father off, I was so proud of her character arc.
Despite all the issues I had with the book, honestly I enjoyed it. Garber’s writing style is captivating and addictive. There’s just enough mystery to keep you saying “one more chapter”. Julian is the perfect book boyfriend and the world of Caraval is so easy to get lost in.
I will most certainly be buying the sequel to Caraval, Legendary. The last few pages of Caraval left me with plenty of questions, and I still have a lot of unresolved questions about the first book. It sounds as though book two will follow Donatella, so I have very high hopes for that narration. I also can’t wait to learn more about Legend and see how Julian and Scarlett are faring. After a stunning debut, I cannot wait to see more of Stephanie Garber’s work!