This is a debut novel and the first book in what is rumoured to be a new series of novels. Written by Stephanie Garber, Caraval is a magical novel with a mysterious and fantastical setting which has set the Young Adult world alight this year. I had to, therefore, give it a try and see if all the hype around this book lived up to the reality.
SSet on the fantasy Isle of Trisda, we meet sisters Scarlett and Donatella. Brought up by their father the governor of the Isle of Trisda we become aware that is is a calculating and cruel man who controls his daughters by punishing them physically when they disobey him, but adds his own twist to this by punishing Donatella when Scarlett steps out of line and vice versa, meaning the sisters know that if they disobey their father their sibling will feel the physical pain of his displeasure. Scarlett has had a marriage arranged by her father to a mysterious Count whom she has never met and her marriage is due to take place within a few weeks but she has never met her future husband.
Scarlett has been writing her whole life to a magical and mysterious figure called Master Legend who runs a magical game called Caraval. Caraval is a festival to which you have to be invited and if invited you are allowed to participate or simply watch the game in progress. The game takes place over 5 nights and you follow a series of clues, almost like a scavenger hunt, which will lead you to a prize beyond your wildest dreams. Scarlet and Donatella have been dreaming of going to Caraval since they were children and suddenly a few weeks before her wedding, they receive invitations from Master Legend himself to attend as his special guests.
With the help of a young sailor called Julian, Scarlett and Donatella run away to Caraval which is being held on Master Legend’s private island. When they get there, however, Tella is kidnapped and Scarlett quickly learns that the item everyone participating in the game needs to find that year is her sister. All the clues will lead them to Tella. The prize at the end will the granting of one wish by Master Legend. Scarlett and Julian must, therefore, work together to try and reach Tella first but the mystery of Caraval is that whilst you must take it seriously you must never be so swept away that you forget it is just a game.
Garber has created a really fantastical world in Caraval, it is magical but has a certain darkness to it. Things are mysterious but you never know whether you can quite trust them to be real. The characters themselves are often hiding secrets and you are never sure which of the people are actors within the show and which are genuine participants. Behind it all, we learn that whilst Caraval is just a game a young girl died there a few years before when she became too swept away and people warn that Caraval can drive you mad. Master Legend himself is said to wear a different face each game and finds it fun to make girls fall madly in love with him.
I loved the writing within this book, Garber uses really good descriptions to set her world of Caraval, using lots of food related descriptions of the world around her such as the sand looking like spun sugar or the sky appearing a buttery texture. She makes it feel full of mystique and her characters are described really well and she focuses a great deal on the elaborate costumes and places that Scarlett visits. You lose yourself in the wonderful world you are reading about.
I found the first half of the book to be a little slow as it took a time to build up the actual setting for the book and therefore most of the action was packed into the second half. I also found myself getting frustrated with the lead character as she became too bogged down in the romantic entanglements she found herself in and lost focus on the game of Caraval itself and the actual goal she had, which was to find her sister. I would have preferred less romantic focus and more action and twists and turns in the game of Caraval instead.
The ending of the book frustrated me a little as well as we build up lots and lots of tension and emotion in events at the end of the book which are then negated a few chapters later as just being “part of the game”. It felt like the toils and turmoil Scarlett endured were suddenly worth less than we had invested in them as a reader. It was nice to have a resolution but a little of it felt too easy.
The ending is clearly setting up for the next book in the series but it’s unclear as yet whether this will be one book, making this a Duology or whether we can expect several more books to take this to a full blown series. I will absolutely read the second book as we have too many unanswered questions and relationships that I would like to spend more time immersed within and we still have much to learn about Master Legend himself which I feel is going to be an ongoing theme to a climax later in the writer’s story. In fact on reflection, this book appeared to be a great deal about creating the setting and the stage for the books that will follow and it has certainly done that and created many many fans along the way.