Caraval by Stephanie Garber published in 2017.
“Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her 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 faraway, 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. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.”
When people talk about Christmas magic, I doubt that they’re talking about the same kind of magic found in Caraval.
The main protagonist Scarlett lives on island Trisda with her little sister Donatella and their abusive father, who also happens to be the Governor of this small island. Scarlett has been writing letters to a man by the name of Legend, the leader of a spectacular called Caraval, a game that melds fiction and reality together with a winner that is granted a magical prize. After seven years of writing letters with no response, three invitations to Caraval arrive in the mail, one for each of the sisters and a special guest of their choice. Yet Scarlett is concerned with consequences of disobeying their father and leaving the island, so Donatella enlists the help of a charming sailor, Julian, into forcing her less adventurous sister into seeking the magic of Caraval. When Scarlett arrives with only Julian, she soon discovers that this game centers around finding a kidnapped player, who just happens to be Donatella. Scarlett goes about playing this mysterious game alongside Julian desperately trying to find her sister. The line between what is real and false becomes more blurred as the game continues, and the relationship between Julian and Scarlett grows more complicated.
I have a pretty equal amount of good and bad things to say about this novel, so I might as well get the bad stuff out of the way first and end this review on a good note. The writing style itself was not my favourite and it really affected how I absorbed the story. I kept comparing it to the likes of a fanfiction; granted not a poorly written fanfiction, but a fanfiction nonetheless. It was high on emotions but not as much on substance. Kind of immature at some points and overall simplistic (simplistic writing can sometimes be a good thing, but in this case, I wasn’t feeling it). From the little fantasy books that I’ve read, I know that there’s a lot more imagery involved than contemporary novels. I’m pleased to say that the imagery was handled well, not too overwhelming but really paints a picture in your mind.
Speaking of its fanfic-ish vibe, the budding romance between Scarlett and Julian was a bit too much for me to handle at some points. Granted, the book is much more than their romance, but the parts in which Scarlett is affected by Julian’s “charming good looks and dashing personality” grow very tiring very quickly for me and I found it quite unrealistic. A lot of damsel in distress vibes that I’m not really into. Even the characters individual personalities were not something that was very desirable in the first place. I mean, I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t necessarily love them either.
Now onto the good stuff. I really liked the entire concept of the Caraval, especially the whole idea of blurring the lines between reality and fiction. This is a very smart theme to incorporate into a story and must have taken the author a lot of planning and storyboarding in order for it all to even out and make sense in the end, so props to Garber on that. It made me feel very immersed in the story since as a reader I was just as clueless about the world as Scarlett was. It kept me on my toes and I appreciate that in a book.
The ending tied things up nicely, even though some scenes leading up to it were somewhat confusing. Although by the time I shut the book most of my major questions were answered yet an air of mystery remained around Caraval that leaves you wanting more. It had a solid cliffhanger that leads nicely to another book, which makes sense since it’s the sequel came out about a year and a half later.
I’m planning on expanding my reading repertoire into some more fantasy based novels, and I think this was a decent introduction to the genre. In regards to me reading the sequel and eventually the last novel in this trilogy, I probably will sometime in the future. It’s not high on my list, but I’ll most likely get to it eventually. I mean, who doesn’t love a good ol’ trilogy?