book review: legendary

Legendary by Stephanie Garber
Flatiron Books, 416 pp.
Published May 29, 2018

DISCLAIMER: I received a free physical ARC of this book from Flatiron Books via a Goodreads giveaway for review purposes.

A heart to protect. A debt to repay. A game to win.

After being swept up in the magical world of Caraval, Donatella Dragna has finally escaped her father and saved her sister Scarlett from a disastrous arranged marriage. The girls should be celebrating, but Tella isn’t yet free. She made a desperate bargain with a mysterious criminal, and what Tella owes him no one has ever been able to deliver: Caraval Master Legend’s true name.

The only chance of uncovering Legend’s identity is to win Caraval, so Tella throws herself into the legendary competition once more—and into the path of the murderous heir to the throne, a doomed love story, and a web of secrets…including her sister's. Caraval has always demanded bravery, cunning, and sacrifice. But now the game is asking for more. If Tella can’t fulfill her bargain and deliver Legend’s name, she’ll lose everything she cares about—maybe even her life. But if she wins, Legend and Caraval will be destroyed forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval...the games have only just begun.
Picking up immediately where Caraval ended, Legendary wastes no time establishing the need for a new set of riddles and a wholly different challenge from the first book's kidnapping. Donatella Dragna, more figure than character in the previous book, moves to a position of prominence as Legend and his troupe of players prepare for a special performance in honor of the empress' birthday.

The magic of Caraval departs its master's private island and manifests in the winding, crowded streets of Valenda. Divided into different quarters, each home to particular industries or amusements, the capital city gives the game a wilder feeling. With the festivities removed from Legend's domain, reality and fiction blur in a more frightening effect than before.

The setting is no less magical for taking place in the "real" world, though. Garber introduces more of the realm beyond Caraval in her sophomore novel, expanding on the political and religious history of the Empire. Most important of all are the Fates, a group of god-like beings with the power to influence human lives, and who were once said to hold dominion over mankind.

Each Fate has a rather macabre representation: the Cruel Prince weeping blood with a red stain at his mouth; the Maiden Death, her head encased in a cage made of pearls; the Undead Queen, with one eye shrouded by a jeweled patch and blue lips. Their inclusion deepens the questions of free will touched on in Caraval: How free are your choices when someone else manipulates the world in which you make them? And are they any less important, if the reality they affect is proven false?

We view this grander struggle through the eyes of the younger Dragna sister, Donatella. Where her sister was cautious and methodical, using her instinct to verify rather than inspire her decisions, Tella charges forward headlong. This recklessness keeps the pace and tension high as her search for the key to Caraval—and Legend's real name—leads Tella further from the other, oblivious players.

Like her sister before, she receives help from a player who may or may not be acting in earnest. Heavily-tattooed Dante plays a significant role, ambiguous in the same way Julian was before him. The chemistry between he and Tella rings a little truer; already well-aware of Caraval's duplicity, she questions his every movement and never trusts him above her own judgement. Her skepticism adds substance to a fast-developing partnership with an amply dark undercurrent of its own.

It's a pleasant change of pace for Donatella emerge from her minimal role in Caraval and take over the sequel's narrative while her sister lingers off-page. (Yes, Scarlett and Julian return, but the focus remains solidly on Tella!) The compressed timeline means that unresolved issues from the first novel stay dangling at the end of Legendary as well. Introducing a larger conspiracy involving royal succession, magical imprisonment, and the threatened return of less-than-benevolent immortals keeps the plot humming along at a brisk pace. It's an exhilarating read that returns to all the strengths of Caraval and finds a way to make them even grander the second time around. I deeply enjoyed returning to the mystical and mystifying world of Caraval, and I can't wait to see what lies in store for both of the tenacious Dragna sisters!


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