February Book Review: Caraval


Caraval (Caraval #1)

By: Stephanie Garber

Release Date: January 31, 2017



*Beware: Spoilers Ahead!*


Official Synopsis:

Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father.  Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.  But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives.  With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show.  Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend.  It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance.  Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic.  And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval…

My Synopsis:

Scarlett Dragna has lived her entire life on the tiny isle of Trisda, fighting to protect her sister, Tella, from their father’s wrath.  When an arranged marriage offers an opportunity for both of them to escape, Scarlett jumps at the chance, and in doing so, gives up her dreams of ever visiting Caraval, the magical, mysterious show where the audience is invited to join in the game.

So when Scarlett’s long-awaited invitation arrives, it’s up to Tella, with the help of a sailor who isn’t quite what he seems, to get them to the show.  Unfortunately, Tella disappears as soon as they arrive, stolen away by Legend, the magical mastermind behind Caraval.  Finding Tella is the goal of this year’s game, and the first one to find her will win the ultimate prize—a single wish.

Scarlett’s been told that the events of Caraval are all part of the performance, but she soon finds herself tangled in a web of secrets, romance, and murder that seems all too real.  And even if it’s only a game, Scarlett must find her sister before the end of the fifth night, or she may never see Tella again…

My Thoughts:

When people started making comparisons between Caraval and The Night Circus, I knew I was going to love it.  I read The Night Circus last fall, and it immediately became one of my all-time favorites.  The characters were complex and charming, the idea of the game was intriguing, and the world-building was beyond compare.  Le Cirque des Reves was described so vividly, so thoroughly, that I felt like I was there.  There are few books that truly transport me to another place like The Night Circus did, and since then, I’ve been looking for good books related to the circus or to carnivals, hoping to capture a bit of the enchantment woven into Erin Morgenstern’s wondrous novel.

Just seeing the cover of Caraval lit that previous spark of magic I’d been hoping to relight.  It sparkled, it sang, and it promised an unforgettable adventure.  I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I hoped beyond hope that Caraval wouldn’t let me down.

And it certainly didn’t—Caraval was everything I could’ve hoped for.  There was a strong and realistic relationship between sisters, the game was high-stakes and required more and more sacrifices from the players, and the world of Caraval was breathtaking in its wonder and its secrets.

Like Le Cirque des Reves, Caraval felt like a character unto itself.  It was a cross between the circus in The Night Circus and Wonderland; like the Cirque, there were attractions and performances that defied logic and reason, the players were unique and secretive, and there was a countdown until the end of the show, meaning everyone had a limited time to achieve whatever goal they had set out to accomplish.  But at the same time, Caraval felt to me a lot like Wonderland, with its strange rules, constant games, and distorted reality.

To begin with, a visit to Caraval could only be achieved with an invitation.  Not just anyone could attend that year’s game, and even those who had been invited wouldn’t be allowed inside if they didn’t make it there before the deadline.  Making it there in time was just the first part of the game, giving potential players a taste of what lay ahead.  But given the opportunity to experience the magic of Caraval, I could only imagine that those invited would do their darndest to get there in time.  Once there, everything was turned upside down.  The game was played at night, and anyone who wasn’t safely inside their lodgings at dawn on the first night was immediately disqualified.  The rules didn’t say what exactly happened to those who weren’t in their boarding house when dawn broke, but the way the instructions were relayed made me think you wouldn’t have want to find out.

Players were provided with the first clue and a list of instructions for finding the rest of the clues, but how the game was actually played was up to each individual.  Trickery, bribery, and thievery were fair game, although the game itself had a way of serving up justice to encourage more honest sportsmanship.  However, the honest ways of play could be just as dangerous.  Truths were often used as a form of payment, but the secrets confessed could come back to haunt you, so if players preferred to pay with time, that was acceptable, too.  Paying with time meant taking days off your life; of course, since no one knows when they’ll die, those days had to be paid instantly, meaning you’d be dead for a few days while the game commenced around you.  You’d be revived when your payment had been made, although if something happened to your body while you were indisposed—being buried, being hidden underwater, being damaged in some way—you may wish you hadn’t woken up at all.

Payments aside, the world of Caraval was easy enough to navigate, and there were wonderful things to see.  The whole thing was built around a maze of canals, requiring travel by boat if you wished to get anywhere quickly.  Or if you were wary of paying to travel on the waterways, you could’ve taken your chances with the bridges and hope they didn’t take you somewhere unexpected.  Assuming you could find your way to where you were going, you may have wanted to visit the dress shop, which you could purchase dresses in all colors and styles, or the Carousel of Roses, which you could set to spinning by paying the pipe organist to play you a song.  Or perhaps you would’ve preferred to visit the Castillo Maldito, with its assortment of tents and exhibitions where you could examine a menagerie of miniature animals, practice your kissing, or have your fortune told.  There was something for everyone at Caraval, but you had to be willing to pay the price for the pleasure.

I found Caraval to be a magical place just this side of insane, and I loved it.  I mentioned that I found Caraval a bit similar to Wonderland, and that’s mostly because of the rules.  They didn’t make a lot of sense, but they had to be obeyed or there were some pretty harsh consequences.  Even though all the players were told—twice—that everything was only a game, that didn’t mean people couldn’t get hurt or even killed.  We saw a few instances of people getting too caught up in the game and going mad, and seeing how things played out for the main heroine, Scarlett, it wasn’t hard to see how people could go a bit loopy.  And while I think madness or death would be a steep price to pay for visiting Caraval, I’d be willing to risk it.  

The descriptions of Caraval, like the descriptions of Le Cirque des Reves, were vivid and thorough.  I truly felt as if I had stepped inside this magical place alongside Scarlett, and I loved getting to explore all the nooks and crannies.  I loved that even the most seemingly ordinary places were a bit off-kilter, like the rooms in La Serpiente being scattered randomly throughout the floors or the moving bridge, which reminded me of the staircases at Hogwarts. The food and drinks sometimes did more than expected, too, such as the cider that made Scarlett see in black and white, which obviously made me think of Wonderland, although the cider proved to a bit more helpful than a mushroom that lets you change your size.  And the shops offered everything from the ordinary to the bizarre, so whether you were looking for a dress or a time-stopping stopwatch, you could find it at Caraval.

Another little piece of magic that I loved were the magical clothes.  Scarlett’s dress was a wonder, and I loved that it seemed to have a mind of its own, changing into a skimpy nightgown when it thought she should be flirting.  But it also seemed to be attuned to Scarlett’s emotions, making it impossible for her not to face her feelings.  It was a nice touch that outwardly manifested Scarlett’s inner turmoil in a unique and beautiful way.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Caraval and the game, though, was the fact that although everyone was given the same clues, there wasn’t just one way to win.  We were told that the clues serve as a map, and that there were many paths to the same destination, so the different clues and how they were interpreted depended on the player. Since we only followed Scarlett through the game, we don’t know how anyone else interpreted the clues, but I like to imagine that other players were successfully making their way through the game by following entirely different sets of clues that only they, with their own unique personality and history, could find.  The lesson that there’s more than one way to accomplish the same goal is an important one, but not one that’s often taught in competition stories, so I liked that it was included here.

But of course, the player that we got to tag along with on her way through Caraval was Scarlett Dragna.  I loved Scarlett right from the beginning.  It was immediately clear that she loved her younger sister, Tella, more than anything, and it would be rather hard to dislike someone who was so willing to sacrifice herself and her happiness to keep her sister safe.  Scarlett and Tella couldn’t be more different, but the bond between them was strong, and it hurt to see them fighting with their father to try and save the other from getting beaten.  That first chapter was a powerful moment, and it quickly solidified not only how evil their father was, but how far Scarlett and Tella were willing to go to spare the other from his wrath.

At its heart, Caraval was a story about sisters and the love that they share, and I loved that no matter what, Scarlett and Tella fought to protect one another, even if they had different ways of going about it.  Scarlett had sworn to keep Tella safe when their mother had left, and Tella refused to let her sister get married to a guy she’d never met just so Tella would be safe from their father.  Coming from an older sister, I understood all too well how the situation played out as Tella, the younger sister, came out on top and inevitably got her way.  I loved that she arranged to kidnap Scarlett to get her to Caraval, and while Scarlett freaked out as any older sister would when their younger sibling refuses to do the logical thing, she agreed to enter Caraval to find her sister.

Unfortunately, Tella disappeared before Scarlett had a chance to talk to her, and things became even more complicated when Tella became the star of the game, with the first person to find her being granted one wish as their prize.  It’s every older sister’s nightmare to have their little sister stuck in some terrible situation, and especially one that she doesn’t know how to solve, but Scarlett refused to let this twist stop her.  Although somewhat timidly, she joined the game, more determined than anyone to find Tella and get her home safely.

I loved getting to see Scarlett’s growth as she worked to find her sister.  At the beginning of the book, the only thing she wanted out of life was safety for Tella.  She was willing to marry a mysterious count that she’d never met simply because he’d promised that he’d bring Tella to live with them and get her away from their father.  It didn’t matter to Scarlett that she didn’t truly love the count or that it could be a terrible match because Tella’s protection was worth anything to Scarlett.  Being at Caraval didn’t change that, and Scarlett’s initial decisions in the game were made with a disregard for what they may have cost her.  That didn’t last long, though, as circumstances forced her to change her strategy, and as Scarlett began to find the answers to the clues, she also became more savvy.

It was great to see Scarlett grow more confident with each passing chapter.  Because her sister was the focus of the game, she was able to rely on her knowledge of Tella and use that to her advantage.  And as she successfully navigated her way through each clue, her belief in herself became stronger.  That didn’t mean she didn’t run into setbacks —there were plenty—but it meant that she was better able to handle them and to avoid making the same mistake twice.  Scarlett even eventually became a bit daring, willing to bargain for clues and take chances in a way that she never would’ve done before.  Tella was always Scarlett’s top priority, but Scarlett learned that she couldn’t always sacrifice herself for her sister’s sake; sometimes the only way she could take of her sister was by first taking care of herself.

Of course, Scarlett didn’t learn all of that on her own.  Her partner, Julian, pushed Scarlett to grow and to want something more than just safety out of life.  We first met Julian caught in a fairly compromising scene with Tella, but we soon learned that he had just teamed up with Tella to kidnap Scarlett and take them to Caraval.  Initially, I figured Julian was just going to be a flirt and that he’d end up with Tella, but as he and Scarlett began to work together, my opinion of him began to change.  Sure, he was still a flirt, and he still lied far too often for my liking, but he was helping rather than hindering Scarlett, and he was gentlemanly enough to keep out when it was Scarlett’s night in their one bed.

However, I found Julian to be far too knowledgeable than I would’ve expected, even if he had been a player before, and I shared Scarlett’s suspicions that he was Legend himself.  Luckily, that was wrong, and although he still had a lot of secrets up his sleeve, I found myself really hoping Julian wouldn’t turn out to be a bad guy.  He was genuinely concerned for Scarlett’s safety, even trading one day of his life for one of hers, and he was actively helping her solve the clues to win the game.  Add that to his annoying yet sweet nickname for her—Crimson—and the romantic tension was undeniable.  It wasn’t until Julian said he wasn’t a good guy yet still continued to help Scarlett search for Tella that I connected him to the fortune teller’s prediction of the man Scarlett would marry.

“I am sorry, but the man you will marry is not what you would call good,” the fortune teller told Scarlett.  “At one time, perhaps, but he has turned from that path, and it is not yet clear if he will turn back.”  If that wasn’t a perfect description of Julian, I don’t know what would’ve been. He had lied and tricked and broken hearts, but there he was, sacrificing his own time and safety to help Scarlett.  His feelings for her began to push him back towards the path of goodness, and the changes in him allowed Scarlett herself to open up.  She’d been hiding her heart for so long, afraid to fall in love and risk her father’s wrath or losing her heart when the person left, like her mother had done.  But as she continued to work alongside Julian, she couldn’t ignore her growing feelings.  I was so glad when they finally kissed, and I finally let myself hope that maybe they’d get their happy ending.

And then Scarlett’s father had to show up with her fiancé and turn the search for Tella into an escape for their lives.  It wasn’t a very successful escape, and when the two were caught, Scarlett’s father took a knife to Julian’s face.  If anyone deserved to be driven mad, it was definitely Governor Dragna, and although he hadn’t changed, his daughter certainly had.  Instead of practically throwing herself at his feet to save Julian, Scarlett took a stand, getting the count on her side to save Julian but once again putting herself on the line to save him.  But with both Julian and Tella at risk, Scarlett was able to stand up to the count as well, and she left him tied to the bed as she and Julian made their escape.  I absolutely loved Scarlett finally showing some backbone, and it could be attributed not only to her love for Julian, but to the growing confidence she’d found in herself as a result of having to deal with all the secrets and chaos of Caraval.  It was a defining moment for Scarlett, and certainly made the most of it.

After escaping, Scarlett realized she knew the answer to the final clue, and she and Julian came face to face with Legend.  Unfortunately, Legend seemed to have gone a bit mad himself, and he joyfully revealed to Scarlett that Julian had been working for him this whole time.  Julian managed to tell Scarlett even though he started out following orders, his feelings for her led him to abandon his task and help her to win.  He told her that it wasn’t a game for him, and Scarlett realized that he was telling the truth…right in time for Legend to stab Julian in the chest.

At this point, I was a bit ready to slam the book shut.  I read Heartless a week or so ago, and all I could think was, How the heck did I manage to get sucked into another book where (spoiler) the love interest gets murdered?  I was not pleased, but then I remembered the wish Scarlett would get if she found Tella, and I had hope again.  Until Scarlett found Tella, who—of course—didn’t believe her story about Legend and his revenge against their family.  To make things even better, Tella had met Legend; in fact, she was engaged to him, and she thought Scarlett had gone mad when she tried to tell her that her beloved Daniel was the notorious Legend.  Then, to make things worse, Scarlett’s father and the count appeared, and Legend revealed his true identity, mocking Tella and her foolish romanticism.  The betrayal broke Tella, and before anyone could stop her, she jumped off the balcony to her death.

And once again, I was ready to slam the book shut.  Really, Tella?  ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Now Scarlett’s going to use her wish to bring you back instead of Julian, and she’ll be glad you’re alive, but she’ll be brokenhearted and you’ll be brokenhearted, and no one will be happy, and this is just a terrible way to end.  But of course, that’s not quite how things turned out.

Scarlett stood up to her father and the count once again, threatening to reveal all her father’s secrets unless they left. Her father left, seeming afraid of his daughter and the wrath she could bring down on his head, and while the count left with him, the way he lingered ever so slightly was a promise that he’d be back.  That was the least of Scarlett’s problems, though, as she demanded her wish, planning to use it to bring Tella back, only to be told that she didn’t get a wish.  I totally had Willy Wonka flashbacks here, but just like poor Charlie Bucket, Scarlett didn’t give up.  And although she tried to bring Tella back using her own blood, she failed.  I was heartbroken for Scarlett at this point and more than a bit angry—how dare you, book, just how dare you—but then Scarlett was given Tella’s letters, and the truth was revealed.

Scarlett hadn’t been the only sister writing to Legend.  Tella was cleverer than anyone had given her credit for, and she’d made her own deal with Legend—the real one, not the player that had been pretending to be him, the one Scarlett had been facing off against—to save herself and Scarlett from their father.  Tella knew the only way she could escape without their father searching for her was if he thought she was dead, and with her free from her father’s grasp, Scarlett wouldn’t have to sacrifice herself and her happiness to keep Tella safe.  Tella told Legend she was willing to die to save herself and her sister, and she knew that someone—Scarlett—loved her enough to bring her back to life in the end.  It took a little extra magic from Legend to do the trick, but Scarlett’s love was in fact powerful enough to bring Tella back from the dead.  During the game, Scarlett had proven how much she truly loved her sister, and so Tella made the jump, knowing she could count on her sister.

So yay for that, but that still left Julian dead.  Except he wasn’t really dead.  Well, he was dead until the game was finished, but then he came back.  Frankly, it was a bit contrived, but since I wanted Julian to be alive, I didn’t really care.  Apparently Legend’s magic kept the players from being truly killed as long as they were part of the performance, so while the player playing Legend had in fact killed Julian, he was fine.  As it turned out, though, Julian had well and truly gone AWOL as he helped Scarlett; he had been meant to leave her almost as soon as they got to the island, but he’d been unable to make himself leave her.  It was a consolation to Scarlett that Julian was alive, but she immediately began to question their entire relationship.

So when they came face to face, Scarlett couldn’t let herself trust her feelings, not until Julian revealed his final truth: Legend was his brother.  He was ready to give up his life as a performer and join the real world once again until his brother asked him to stay for one last game.  Scarlett knew all too well what it was like to be willing to do anything for a sibling, and that was enough to put a crack in her guard.  But then she saw the scar on Julian’s cheek, the one made by her father’s knife, and she realized that while he may not have been exactly the person he was during the game, the Julian standing in front of her was still brave and selfless and willing to put himself in danger to save her.  It was the safety she’d always longed for, and it was accompanied by a true and unwavering love, and Scarlett made her choice.  I was so glad that they did in fact end up together, and I loved the joyous feel of the party as they finally, truly gave their hearts to one another.

It was a lovely ending for Scarlett, and after years of having given herself up to protect Tella, it was nice that this time, she could choose happiness for herself.  Scarlett’s journey from a young woman afraid to leave her island home to a young woman who’d heard the future, faced down evil, and brought someone back from the dead was full of all the action, mystery, romance, and magic I could’ve wanted.  There were a number of twists in the tale, but Scarlett’s path was straightened in the end, leading her to the one man who encouraged her to be herself and who would always face down danger by her side.  

Caraval is a story of personal growth, but it’s also a story about the sacrifices we’re willing to make for the ones we love.  More importantly, it’s about the love between sisters, and how with a little magic, that love will save the day no matter what.  Caraval explores a world that is wonderfully and brilliantly crafted, with characters you’ll fall in love with and a mystery that will keep you guessing right until the final page.  While comparisons between Caraval and The Night Circus aren’t entirely wrong, Caraval certainly stands on its own two feet, and readers will certainly love exploring this new world with Scarlett and Julian.  So hurry up and get yourself a copy of Caraval!  Just remember, it’s only a game, but even games have their surprises.


Stray Thoughts and Observations:

  • A seven-year time jump in the first chapter—a unique way to start the story.
  • Oh, the dichotomy of sisters.
  • The dynamic between Scarlett and Tella is ridiculously realistic.
  • I liked that Scarlett’s emotions were tied to colors.  It’s not explained why, but I found that each description was accurate even if I had never thought of an emotion that way until then.  An interesting touch.
  • I loved Caspar-as-Legend playing him as a dramatic psychopath.  It reminded me of Moriarty, and I definitely squealed with delight.
  • The count will be back.  What is it with counts and their evil scheming to get what they want?  (I’m looking at you, Count Olaf.)
  • So did anyone actually die in this book?
  • Sisterly love saves the day—just like Frozen!
  • I’m assuming Tella’s letter is from the real Legend?  And he knows where their mom is; it’ll be interesting to meet her.
  • What exactly did Tella offer as payment for this version of the game?  Seeing how cunning and determinedTella is, it’s likely to be something big.
  • Will the next book be from Tella’s POV?
  • I hope the next book explains more about Legend’s magic and how it works.  Because if it can stop people from aging a la Neverland as long as they’re performers, I don’t know why people wouldn’t want to be performers.
  • I also hope we get to see more of Aiko and learn about the history of Caraval.  She was an interesting character, and I want a better look at her journal!

Favorite Quotes:

  • Whatever youve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality.  It’s more than just a game or a performance.  It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in the world.
  • “Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won’t wake up.”
  • Wishes were things of wonder that took a certain amount of faith, and Julian seemed the type to trust only what he saw.
  • In a place where even the air tasted sweet, she tried to imagine the flavor of someone else’s lips pressed to hers.
  • “Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.”
  • “I think I’ve made a mistake.”  “Then make it into something better.”
  • “Do you always focus on what you’re giving up, rather than what you’ll be gaining?  Some things are worth the pursuit regardless of the cost.”
  • Not quite sure how far she’s already fallen, she imagined loving him would feel like falling in love with darkness, frightening and consuming yet utterly beautiful when the stars came out.
  • She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night, the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.
  • When she’d kissed Julian, it had felt right.  Two people choosing to give tiny vulnerable parts of themselves to each other.
  • “No need to look at me as if I’ll sneak into your house at night and strangle all your kittens.”
  • Hope it a powerful thing.  Some say it’s a different breed of magic altogether.  Elusive, difficult to hold on to. But not much is needed.
  • “I love you, Tella.”  “I know you do…I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”
  • Scarlett wasn’t sure who kissed who first.  Their lips were almost touching, then Julian’s soft mouth was crushing hers.  It tasted like the moment before night gives birth to morning; it was the end of one thing and the beginning of something else all wrapped up together.

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