Book Review: Caraval! 

Hey everyone! Today I’ll be doing both a spoiler free and a full review of Caraval by Stephanie Garber. 

Before I start I did want to thank Annalise of Hopeful Reads as I won a copy of the book and a bit of other swag from a giveaway she did on her blog. Thank you Annalise! 🙂

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As always I’ll start with the spoiler free review and the full review that will contain spoilers will be following the photo of the book below. At the very end the same book photo will there as well.

About the Book

Caraval is a young adult debut novel by Stephanie Garber that follows Scarlett and Tella, sisters who live with an abusive father and have dreamed of attending Caraval since childhood. Their grandmother would tell them all about the magical event. At Caraval you can chose to play the game over the course of the five days or watch. However the only way to attend Caraval is by being invited, and even if the sisters had received invitations, they would not have been allowed to attend by their father.

As Scarlett’s wedding for her arranged marriage looms closer she and Tella suddenly receive invitations and Tella enlists a sailor named Julian to help her and Scarlett run away to attend Caraval, with the intention of coming home in time for Scarlett’s wedding. However they are separated before they even set foot on the island where Caraval takes place and Tella is kidnapped for the game.

Scarlett races against the clock to find her sister. Although she is repeatedly told the game is not real and warned against losing herself in the game, it feels very real and Scarlett is desperate to find her sister.

Spoiler Free Review

There had been a lot of hype for this book and I was excited to read it. Caraval has been compared to The Night Circus which was a book I had really enjoyed. While I can see how that would be perhaps the most natural book to gravitate to when comparing Caraval to another story I didn’t think they were actually that similar.

Caraval was similar in the sense that whatever magic the game has isolates the island from the rest of the world, as the circus magic did in The Night Circus. However Caraval’s setting is a town on an island, where the performers and attendees of Caraval stay.

The story unfolds around Scarlett and Julian, as they work to solve the clues to find Tella and win the game. As they do Scarlett finds herself more and more attracted to Julian although she pushes her feelings aside to focus on finding her sister and to ensure she can still get home in time to marry her intended. While Scarlett doesn’t know her fiancée she is certain that he is the key to getting herself and Tella to a safe home at last. The romance is light and totally clean, this is a young adult book after all, so it was sweet to read.

I ended up giving Caraval four out of five stars. I liked the feel of the story and the magic of it but I feel that it wasn’t as well thought out or explained as I would have liked.

Full Review *SPOILERS AHEAD*

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Well you’ve been warned. If you haven’t read the book though I highly recommend you do before you continue if you’re curious about the story.

First off, the characters. Scarlett is the main character and the one we follow. She’s not the brightest crayon in the box but what she lacks in intelligence she tries to make up with determination and loyalty. Julian then teams up with Scarlett after he and Tella kidnap her to take her to Caraval. I liked that Scarlett and Julian struggle to get through the challenges set before them as they are so different from each other and at first find it difficult to work together.

Once they figure things out though they are the dream team. Scarlett’s past with her manipulative and cruel father help her be more intuitive than most, and Julian has first hand experience with the game as he’s been at Caraval before. They are a good pair and it was nice to see that they had to work to make it a good working relationship rather than automatically getting along.

We don’t get to know Tella as well as we do Scarlett because she’s kidnapped almost as soon as we meet her but we do know Tella is the wilder of the sisters. As stated earlier,  Tella actually kidnaps Scarlett to take her to Caraval. The sisters clearly try to look out for each other but somehow they don’t seem to get it right sometimes. Scarlett repeatedly says she has tried to protect Tella after their mother left and spoiled her as a result but Tella and Scarlett don’t actually seem to see eye to eye on how to best survive in the world. Tella wants to run away and make it on their own while Scarlett looks to her marriage for a way out for them. Both sisters have good intentions despite a seemingly large communication gap between them. I love how they each follow what they believe is best for the other and protect each other. A very powerful moment is right at the start of the novel when we learned that if one sister angers their father he physically abuses the other, and they will do anything to try to prevent the other from getting hurt.

Then there’s the master of Caraval, Legend, who is an elusive character. Scarlett has been writing to Legend for years in hopes of receiving invitations for herself and Tella but he doesn’t respond until she writes she is getting married. Then he kidnaps Tella and all but forces Scarlett to play the game rather than become a spectator. At the end it’s revealed that he’s been working with Tella but we still don’t get anything really about him as al we’ve heard is revealed to be untrue. I do hope we actually get to see him in the next book.

As for the plot? Well that’s trickier. It soon becomes obvious that the game of that year is meant to target Scarlett and Tella. But the story is built on lies that seem real at the time. Legend’s motive of destroying Scarlett’s family is revealed to be fake, and then the promise that Caraval is not real ends up to be fake as well when it’s revealed that the only ones really protected are the performers; the attendees can be harmed.

Even though there are some distractions, Scarlett focuses on finding Tella or Legend, as finding one will lead her to the other. But Scarlett makes mistakes along the way and reveal how sheltered she is. She repeated says that she can recognize manipulation and lies due to her father but she admits that she can’t fight against it. This becomes more and more important through the book, particularly as Scarlett is giving away her secrets despite being told she shouldn’t.

I found the lack of competition strange, even though they were meant to be competing for the prize of a wish from Legend. Really the only time anyone seemed to have a chance at winning was when Scarlett finds that Tella’s room is being looted for clues. It makes sense that Scarlett would be the one to get the actual clue, as she knows her sister the best and that’s just how things go for main characters, but after the players have had time to search out what they believe is their clue you’d expect them to catch on eventually that they don’t have the correct clue and try to get back on track. Instead, the players seem to have forgotten they were trying to win or give up because only occasionally do they seem to talk to Scarlett and they stay out of her way as she tries to find Tella. Rather than competing against a horde of other players, Scarlett only seems to be competing against the clock. Going into the book I had thought that the kidnapping was going to be only Scarlett’s main objective and that the contest was leading the players elsewhere and would serve more as a distraction to Scarlett’s goal. I was surprised when finding Tella was the objective for the entire contest.

As with most young adult books I could see some of the twists coming, like Julian actually working for Legend and Caraval and the performer who was only pretending to be Legend for the show. Others I didn’t catch, like how Legend and Julian are actually brothers (I had thought Julian would be more like an indentured servant or something along those lines).

There’s also little world building outside the island. The magic wasn’t really explained and it wasn’t clear how much influence magic had off the island. Since the story revolves around Caraval it doesn’t really take away from the story but I think it could have been enriched by it. Also, really quickly, Caraval’s setting is so different than expected. It’s not a circus at all. There’s only one Circus-like tent in the story but there’s an inn where the players stay, shops, a castle, tunnels, and so on. It’s more of a town rather than a circus.

The ending was so exciting! Scarlett’s true inner strength emerges, the most satisfying perhaps when she visibly scared her father. Eventually Tella and Julian are brought back to life and reunited with Scarlett, which was great! I felt that Scarlett had a very natural reaction to the end of the game. After all, she was constantly told it was only a game, but then finds out that the game can have very real implications and it’s not clear what she is going to do now.

The end did feel convenient but as it is the first book of a series (sigh) then I can see how that was necessary. I’ve said this before but I really with not all books had to continue and I wish they were more standalones. I did like it though so I’m also a little happy to get to explore more of this world and see the continuation of Scarlett and her relationships with Julian and Tella. I was surprised at the mention of their mother so I’m looking forward to learning more about her and hopefully meeting Legend. I also really hope that Scarlett doesn’t lose her newfound strength in the next book.

Overall the book is best described as mysterious. There are many twists and turns in the story, in the characters, and in the game itself. I did really like the book and I did almost give it five stars but in the end I did go with four stars due to the above mentioned problems. In the end the book was so enjoyable and the magic at Caraval was fantastic.

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So that’s my review of Caraval by Stephanie Garber! Have you read Caraval? And if so, what did you think?

Thanks for reading! 

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