“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. You can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle. But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it’s all a game.”
My rating: 4/5 stars
I normally handle hyped up books with caution – perhaps because I’m cynical or don’t want to be let down, probably both. But Caraval was unexpectedly and completely captivating. I was pleasantly surprised by this bedazzling debut by Stephanie Garber and her ability to draw me right into this magical, emotionally intense story.
Scarlett and Donatella are sisters who live on a fictional island reminiscent of the Mediterranean in a Victorian-style era. They are brutally governed by a tyrannical father who physically abuses whichever sister is not the transgressor in order to maintain ultimate control over them. Every year of her childhood, Scarlett has dreamed of escaping their father to go to a traveling live fantasy performance called Caraval, where participants can play a game to win a magical prize or simply stay to experience the wonders as a spectator.
However, Scarlett has grown up and moved on from her dream, and is looking forward to her upcoming arranged marriage when she and her sister are finally invited to partipate in Caraval. Despite Scarlett’s hesitation, her sister whisks Scarlett away to the show and when they arrive, Donatella suddenly disappears. Scarlett soon realizes that to win the game designed by the mysterious mastermind, Legend, she must find her sister before any of the other participants do. She is assisted by an unlikely accomplice, a self-assured and handsome sailor, Julian, who seems to have some secrets of his own. The game quickly turns dark and dangerous and Scarlett realizes Caraval may be nothing like the place of wonder she imagined as a child.
I still feel a little dizzy after finishing this book. There were so many unexpected twists and turns and even though the characters (and therefore us, the readers) are warned again and again that it is all just a game, that nothing is as it seems, I still couldn’t help myself from trying to predict the ending. And oh, did this book ever make a fool out of me. Every time I thought I knew how it was going to end I was shortly proven wrong, which is really so refreshing in a world of predictable storylines.
Garber’s writing style was engaging and fluid, keeping me immersed in the story page after page. Every sentance radiated poetry and whimsy. At times I felt the pacing trudged a little only to pick up again without warning, very much in the way one experiences a dream. I actually think it added to the bizarre and dreamlike atmosphere of the book.
The characters were likeable and believable – Scarlett in particular is a realistic example of a victim of domestic abuse. Her hesitation at taking risks and the way she craves stability and protection are direct results of her father’s physical violence and cruelty. Through mind-bending and heartbreaking trials, Scarlett begins to show an inner strength and independence she didn’t know she had. There is romance in abundance but it’s developed slowly and naturally, and in my opinion, the best romances always take their sweet time.
At times devastating, this book dashed me to pieces and put me back together again. And again. After a tense climax I was brought to a satisfying sense of closure and a delicious hint of more to come. Caraval will definitely be a reread in the future and I look forward to catching the subtleties I may have missed the first time.