book review: caraval

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
Flatiron Books, 407 pp.
Published January 31, 2017

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.

Trippy and fantastical, Caraval will leave you guessing long after the back cover falls closed. Again and again the players in the game insist nothing that happens is real, yet from the outset we know that to be a lie. Even if our surroundings are an illusion, the feelings they elicit are not. In this way Caraval looms large, a gilded trap for those who dare to play: you cannot win without risking personal involvement and you cannot become involved without believing the fable is fact. The experience is just as disorienting for the reader as it is for Scarlett, the eldest sister swept away by its deceit.

The naiveté of an isolated upbringing and the wariness born of an abusive past compel her to trust any kindness while constantly questioning the motives behind it. Of the two sisters, Scarlett is the 'cautious' one. As the game goes on she must confront the boundaries of her own comfort, risking everything from a bit of societal decency to her very life in the search for Tella. A theme of bartering—or an item's true value—runs throughout Caraval. Much of Scarlett's development takes place within that context as well. She never receives information, aid, or reward without consequence. Living on the knife's edge of her father's temper equipped her to the cost of any action, and her choices gradually define Scarlett as a rose with steely thorns.

Scarlett also strongly associates a given feeling with colors. Her voice turns the five nights of Caraval into a kaleidoscopic sensory whirl. It can overwhelm at times and benefits from multiple readings, particularly when you careen through the story in little over a day like I did. For all of its bright hues the carnival atmosphere never loses a dark sheen; just like the secret tunnels that run beneath Legend's island, a sinister underbelly lurks under the shimmering surface.

Although Tella is the focus of her sister's search, we learn very little of her during the story. Scarlett must rely on Julian, a practical stranger met only a day prior, for help to solve the mystery of her disappearance. Because his uncertain motives also drive the plot, Julian's true character shifts and morphs from chapter to chapter. He's less a fully realized character than an ideal onto which Scarlett can project her fears, hopes, and needs. Whether his role in the hunt is just that, or something more sincere, Julian does exude a tar-like charm: dark, threatening, inescapable

The budding attraction between Scarlett and Julian was overdone at times, however, it was authentic to the consuming, heady rush of a first love. Caraval finds its greatest success in the heart of its story: one sister hunting for another, as both desperate seek to escape an intolerable existence. Tella might not appear for much of the novel but her presence looms large in the sisterly love expressed by Scarlett. The grand stage of Legend—his identity, history, and endgame—invites a rich succession of sequels, yet in this introduction to his vibrant world we're reminded that within every great story beats a living heart. The love and determination of two sisters drives that of Caraval, promising a rich adventure to come.


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