Caraval – Stephanie Garber

“Remember, it’s only a game.”


Caraval is one of those stories I could not wait to read since the author was in the early stages of being published. I desperately sought an ARC, but unfortunately, didn’t manage to receive one. Instead, I received it in my Owl Crate box, which I couldn’t have been more pleased with. Still – I had such high expectations for it; the book community showered it with praise, and I tend to put off reading books like that until the hype has died down a bit. I don’t like to go into reading a book with any sort of influence from others. Once summer vacation hit, however, it was the first book I chose to dive into. With that being said, let’s get started.

The story – Caraval is a story about two sisters. Scarlett has dreamed of going to Caraval, a game filled with magic that is run by the mysterious master Legend, ever since she was little. Her grandmother had told the sisters stories of it, and each year, Scarlett writes to Legend in the hopes that she and her sister will be invited to participate. Her letter finally receives an answer, less than a week before her impending marriage, and her younger sister, Tella, convinces her to go. Accompanied by the handsome sailor Julian, they flee both the small island they were raised on and the abusive father they fear. Very quickly, Scarlett realizes that the game is not what she dreamed of. It is a fantastical thing, filled with strange people that barter goods for secrets and days rather than coin. Yet it’s not all fun and games – the danger seems all too real for a game. Scarlett is tasked with winning the competition alongside Julian in the hopes of saving her sister. As fantasy begins to blur with reality, Scarlett fears what will happen if she loses. But…it’s only a game, right?

Characters – Scarlett is not like your typical YA heroine. She is not particularly gifted. She is not sassy, overly brave, or adventurous. She is content with “love and protection,” as she thinks those are the stuff of every girl’s dreams. She tells herself that it’s okay to marry someone she has never met in the hopes that it will provide that protection for her sister and herself. She has dreamed of seeing Caraval all of her life, yet her only thought when beginning it is that she must find her sister and return to her island – she cannot even think of jeopardizing her impending marriage. Over and over, she speaks of her love for her sister. Yet as the story goes on, this bond seems weakened by her growing affection for Julian. I feel she has spent so much of her life worrying about her spirited and rebellious sister that she has forgotten what it means to live. Tella herself realizes this, and that is part of what drives the story forward. I will be honest. At first, I very much disliked Scarlett. She was too cautious. Too confined by rules and what is deemed proper to find enjoyment in even her wildest dream. She lies to herself more than I would like her to, even if the motivation behind it is good. I realized my dislike stemmed from her similarity to myself, and once I figured that out, I understood her in a way I hadn’t before. Scarlett is one of the few characters that shows any development during Caraval, but I wish it hadn’t been motivated so much by the love interest. I loved this story at the outset because it was a story of two sisters – much like my sister and I. Yet at times I found myself wondering if Scarlett would choose her sister after all.

Tella is the opposite of her sister. She bends the rules whenever possible, and takes risk after risk as she pursues her happiness. Her abusive father uses this to his advantage. He controls Scarlett through Tella. Neither is safe from his abuse. At times, this was hard to read. My sister and I were abused by our father, physically and mentally, for over 18 years. I will admit that if you have dealt with either physical abuse or sexual assault, this book has a few scenes you might want to skip over. I was uncomfortable, but again, I related to the sisters more for it. I was the one who protected my Tella, and I relate to that. I would do anything for her, and that is the bond I was hoping to see in this book. People might find issue with the fact that their father is a senseless villain. After his wife’s disappearance, he turns from a strict father to a monster seemingly out of nowhere. He is murderous, the true definition of an evil character. That is where people might be confused. Yet people who abuse their children often are broken themselves. We may never know the true reasons that would force someone to do it. I still don’t know the reasons my own father abused us. So I did not look for any further explanation that what the author gave here.

Julian kept me guessing. He is much more like the usual boy you’d find in YA. He is mysterious, almost as much so as the rest of the members of Caraval. He knows too much, but only ever gives enough of an explanation to barely satisfy the reader’s – and Scarlett’s – curiosity. He is kind, brave, handsome, and all the typical traits you’d want him to be. But he is not perfect, and I found that refreshing. While the story does indeed take place over a week, and some may find issue with the instalove portrayed here, the ending redeemed this for me. It’s refreshing to get the chance to truly learn and love someone all over again, without the added cliche of memory loss.

The world – This is where Caraval failed for me. While the writing is full of beautiful prose and quirks – Scarlett sees her emotions in waves of color – there is not much in the way of describing the world. I don’t know whether the island system is part of a larger country or continent. I don’t know anything about the rules, the surroundings – other than that they seemingly travel from island to island by boat. Even the magic system falls short. Tella describes the magic of Caraval as something none of them really understand – even the performers. “Tella didn’t know the particulars as to how it worked. It was one of those things that people didn’t really talk about.” In a way, I feel this is lazy, and I would have liked to see Garber give it more attention. Also – though Caraval is described as a competition, it did not feel like it. While the other participants are only rarely described, it never really feels like Scarlett is ever at risk of losing. She stumbles into each clue with almost incredible luck. While this is not like The Hunger Games, I did want it to be a little bit more convincing as a competition. The stakes did not feel very high until near the end, where things dramatically pick up. I did enjoy this – I am usually the type to be able to guess things far before the main character does. The twists here really did surprise me, and I was glad I went in blind for this one.

While this book did not amaze me, and it is weak in some areas, I did read it in a day. It’s the kind of book that keeps you guessing – you turn the page to find endless twists and you question yourself as much as the main character does. Some of the writing is questionable – such as referring to Julian’s body as that of a sculptor or painter when I think she means sculptures or paintings, but the other descriptions really are lovely. Overall, I give it a 3.5-4.0. It’s an enjoyable read – just not my favorite. I think this is because of my own personal background, but I hoped for a stronger story of two sisters rather than the journey of discovery for Scarlett that we ended up with.

4 Stars


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