Caraval by Stephanie Garber is a young adult fantasy novel concerning two sisters, Scarlett and Tella Dragna, and the magical annual performance, Caraval, where the audience get to participate in the show – or, more accurately, the game. Scarlett and Tella have been enchanted by the idea of Caraval and its mysterious ringleader, Master Legend, ever since their grandmother told them stories of it as children. But when they finally receive invitations to Caraval, just days before the event, Scarlett is just days away from marrying a man who promises both herself and her sister a secure future away from their abusive father. Going to Caraval would mean putting their future and their safety in jeopardy.
Tella, meanwhile, has other ideas. Despite the risk of missing the wedding, she tricks Scarlett into going with her to Caraval with the help of sailor Julian, before promptly disappearing upon arrival. Scarlett quickly realises Tella has been kidnapped by Legend himself: Tella’s whereabouts is the mystery that this year’s participants must solve to win the game. She vows to find her sister in time to return for her wedding, but soon discovers that Caraval is less harmless than she imagined. While it might just be a game, Scarlett cannot risk that it isn’t, and that something sinister really is going to happen – or has already happened – to her sister. Not only must she figure out the clues that Legend has left for them, but also who to trust – including whether she can trust herself.
There’s been a lot of hype about Stephanie Garber’s newly-released debut Caraval, but the main reason I wanted to read it was because of its comparisons to Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, which is one of my favourite books.
If you’re planning to read Caraval because you enjoyed The Night Circus, I’d like to give you some advice: get rid of any idea of Caraval being anything like The Night Circus, right now. While they may both be about magical events – Caraval and Le Cirque des Reves – and have similar colour schemes on their covers, that’s where the similarities end. Where The Night Circus is slow-paced and set over a period of many years, Caraval is fast-paced and set over just over a week. Where The Night Circus is centred mostly around the story of the circus itself and its creation, told from numerous perspectives, Caraval is centered around the personal story of the two sisters, told solely from Scarlett’s perspective. And where Le Cirque des Reves is innocent and enchanting, Caraval is full of secrets, lies, and dark, hidden corners.
So while I do think fans of The Night Circus will enjoy Caraval, do not expect Garber to focus her book on drawing the reader into the world, as Morgenstern does. In fact, rather than having characters fall in love with the world of Caraval as they do in The Night Circus, Caraval is the last place Scarlett wants to be, despite her childhood dreams. She spends the first quarter of the book distracted from Caraval by her missing sister, and reluctant to get involved in the game, which means it also takes a while for the reader to get into the setting too.
For me, this book was very much split into two parts. I found it very hard to get into the first half, in which we meet Scarlett and Tella on their native Isle of Trisda, and we’re introduced to Caraval, except that Scarlett’s refusal to join in overshadows our first impression of what should be an enticing, engaging setting. One thing that disappointed me in the first half of the book is that apparent lack of worldbuilding concerning the world outside Caraval. We hear names such as the Isle of Trisda, the Conquered Isles, and the Southern Empire thrown around with little to no context. Personally, I’d have at least liked a map so I could picture where these places were in relation to each other when they’re mentioned. In fact, I’d have preferred to have had a map of the world instead of the map of Caraval printed in the book; it wasn’t necessary to the story to know where places in Caraval were in relation to one another, and I felt having a map to show you where things are detracted a little from the mystery of the place. I’d also have liked to know who conquered the Conquered Isles, as well as how, when, and why. We also find out very little about Scarlett and Tella’s home, Trisda: I couldn’t picture what sort of people lived here, what sort of houses they lived in, or what daily life there was like, other than a bit bleak.
It was only the second half of the book that hooked me. This is when the plot begins to pick up, and things start getting intriguing. If you’re getting bored by the first half of the book, I highly encourage you to persevere beyond the halfway point, at least; from here it only gets better, as the emotional tension increases and the plot twists start hitting.
As can be expected from a young adult book, Caraval includes a romantic subplot. While I can certainly see how it could have some swooning, though, it only had me grinding my teeth. It had the typical super-attractive love interest (complete with a chiseled jaw and everything *eye roll*), and Scarlett both meets and “falls in love” with him during the course of the book, which, as I mentioned earlier, takes place over just a little more than a week. It seemed like the only reason she thought herself “in love” with him is because a) he’s very attractive and she’s therefore drawn to him, and b) she at some point came to trust him (though how much is debatable), and to me, these two things aren’t enough for someone to be in love with someone else, so that did annoy me a bit. Having said all that, it certainly wasn’t the worst romantic subplot I’ve read, and I quite liked how it ended.
My other complaint about Caraval is the writing. Most of the time, the writing is quite evocative, conjuring images quite vividly. However, on occasion, it wasn’t the clearest prose. While the emotions would be well-described, I often struggled to picture the physical surroundings (for example, on the balcony just after Scarlett and Julian enter Caraval) and the physical goings-on (wait, I thought this character was over there, how are they suddenly over here? Hang on, are they still in the hat shop or not?). This meant I sometimes had to stop, reread sections, and think about it before I understood exactly what was happening, which did break the flow of the story a bit, but I consider it a minor complaint.
Overall, I really enjoyed reading Caraval, and I especially loved the ending. I don’t think it quite lived up to all the hype, but that’s the thing about hype: it makes a good book, like Caraval, sound like the masterpiece of the century, which Caraval is not. But I definitely still recommend giving it a read if it sounds like your sort of thing. It’s also a great standalone read, though there is a planned sequel and I personally will definitely be reading it.
Just don’t make my mistake and go in expecting anything like The Night Circus!
Have you read Caraval? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!
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