Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Published: January 31
Genre: young adult, fantasy
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.
Scarlett and Tella have wanted to see Caraval, a once-a-year circus-like show with audience participation, ever since they were little girls. But their cruel father has viciously prevented them from ever leaving their home. When Scarlett is betrothed to a man she’s never met, she mysteriously receives three tickets to Caraval from the mastermind himself, Legend. The sisters attend the game, but Tella is kidnapped. Finding her means the participant won. Racing against the clock, Scarlett plays the mind-bending, elaborate game with other participants and actors, and everything that seems real is not. After all, nothing at Caraval is as it seems.
This was such a tough read! I wanted to love this book. I heard wonderful things from the editor (I adore her to pieces) and I’ve been looking forward to it since BEA last May. While I do ultimately believe this is a good book and certainly one worth reading, I also have some personal qualms with it.
Let’s do some compare and contrast. The atmosphere was divine! While the writing was hard to get into in the opening chapters, it ultimately helped develop the surreal and magical elements of the game Caraval itself. Somewhere between Oz and Narnia, with some twisted elements like in the Harry Potter maze, Caraval is a place I’d love to participate for fun (and not forced into like the sisters. Whoooooo boy). I can see why this was pitched as the YA version of Night Circus, as it seems there are no rules that govern the game and the twists and turns really kept me on my toes.
That said, the lack of rules started to get to me. This was very much an anything-goes world, full of lies and trickery and bizarre, mind-boggling situations. Unlike the Night Circus (which does have grounding rules in the magical elements and capabilities), Caraval lacked any sense of reality. Yes, I know it’s part of the game, but when the “rules” are contradictory, and the “reality” is twisted constantly, it makes it hard to follow the plot and sympathize or trust the characters.
The characters were vast and varied. I felt for them, to some extent, especially the sisters under their abusive father (TRIGGER WARNING for anyone who has experienced emotional or physical abuse). It’s hard to read abuse books, even though it’s true to life. That said, the father was almost too Disney-villain, not quite executed the way he should have been in order to frighten me. The sisterly bond, while admirable, lacked the intensity I was promised. The reader is told several times the girls are close, but it felt like a one-way street, with Scarlett ready to die for Tella and Tella just messing with Scarlett’s head. (I loathed that. I cannot stand when characters use one another like this, and it made it very hard for me to care what happened to Tella. (For a good sisterly bond story, read the Lara Jean series by Jenny Han.))
Now, again, the main characters left something to be desired, but the secondary characters were shining in here! I still don’t know what to think of Julian or Dante (though I won’t go into my thoughts on their relationship with Scarlett), or even Aiko and Jo, but I do want to know more! And I would love to dive back into Caraval with a different set of characters — maybe ones who genuinely wanted to be there and play the game. How about the girl who was turned to stone outside the dress shop? Tell me more about her!
I’m torn. The plot and setting was there, but the characters and last little bit of world-building needed a bit more development. With some tightening of the prose, this could’ve been something truly astounding. I enjoyed the atmosphere, the game, the premise, and I’ve no doubt this book will stay in my mind for months.
Thank you, Flatiron Books, for providing this book at BEA for review.
This qualifies as book 1 of 12 in the Rock My TBR challenge.