“Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.”
Remember, it’s only a game…
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.
Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.
CW: child abuse, violence, murder, drowning, suicide, loss of a loved one
This review is actually for my reread of Caraval, since I first gave it a go before I started blogging, and I’m actually pretty pleased to say that my rating has stayed about the same! It feels good to have that kind of consistency in my life right now. Yay for feeling the same about a book instead of going on a rollercoaster emotional journey about how to rate it!
Anyway, it’s for the most part a pretty good book! For one, the setting is just so enchanting, and it’s possibly my favorite thing about the whole series. Stephanie Garber just has such a way with creating these atmospheric locations for the game of Caraval to unfold, toeing the line between magic and the mundane, then teetering headfirst down the slope into the truly magical. It helps that she so often crafts these unsettling bargains where the characters can’t know the full scope of their actions until it’s too late. While reading, you’re constantly haunted by this sense that the clock is ticking, and the choices presented manage to feel both perfect and terribly, terribly wrong. It’s a tricky, uncanny balance, and I really delight in how it’s been managed!
I also liked Scarlett more than a fair share of reviewers I’ve seen. She is, to be fair, a bit of a reactive protagonist in a lot of ways, pushed into her choices rather than pulling those choices to her. I would like her much more if she were a little more proactive. That said, I really, really love the lengths she’ll go to for Tella, and the fact that she struggles to articulate what she wants, or to decide for herself without long hesitation. Her decision-making process and the way she seems to be barely keeping her head above water for most of the game makes sense with the way she has for so long focused on self-preservation and safe choices to keep her father’s abuse as far away as possible while still living under his roof. Caraval demands risk to receive reward, and it’s entirely new territory for Scarlett to face. Her reactions are cautious and timid with good reason, and I really sympathize with her.
Added bonus that she’s an older sister looking out for a younger sister. I will almost always sympathize for older sibling characters because I’m the oldest in my family, and that’s just what I do too (though with less extreme circumstances, thankfully).
I suppose I also liked Julian as well, because I am a bit of a sucker for rogues with a heart of gold (listen, I am predictable and I ADMIT IT), and because he slowly opens up more and more. Not to mention I like the way he and Scarlett have to learn how to best interact with one another as the series goes on, but I’ll save that for the next couple reviews, since the bulk of that doesn’t happen in this book.
However, I do have to give the book 3.5 stars not only for Scarlett being just a hair too reactionary rather than proactive, but also because the riddles and the game always felt like they were three steps ahead of the reader, and it felt unpredictable in a way that didn’t make me especially pleased. I firmly believe that if you put riddles or puzzles into a narrative, they should be tough to solve, especially early on when information is scarce for the characters, but ultimately, you should be able to look back and go “THE ANSWER WAS THERE THE WHOLE TIME,” and with Caraval, I didn’t really get that sense. The answer always seemed to pop up too close to actually solving it, and even some of the plot points that would have benefited from that kind of foreshadowing felt a little jumpy and last minute. I like the plots and puzzles in my books to be grounded, even if I don’t actually see the answer myself until I step all over it. I want to look back and have it make frustratingly perfect “why didn’t I see it sooner?” sense.
Plus, the romance is, uh, pretty close to instalove. Not my favorite trope, even if I like the characters individually. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
On the whole, though, I liked Caraval, and it was definitely worth reading for the second time around (especially to prep for finally reading the rest of the trilogy!); I’d recommend it to folks who want something that feels colorful and luminous while also being ominous and twisty, with promise of more to come. It’s a decently solid first book, and since the other two books are better (I’ll spoil that part of my other two reviews right now, haha), that’s a good thing for sure!
So, how do you feel about Caraval? Would you play a game with such big stakes, big risks? Or would you be content to watch the spectacle unfold? Or have you not read it yet at all? If you’ve already experienced the magic, or if you think you’re about to dive in, either way, let’s chat!