Caraval by Stephanie Garber has been billed as a dreamy, magical, mind-bending sort of fantasy. While it does try to be twisty, I don’t know if I would go as far as calling it mind-bending, but I would agree that it has a very strong sense of the mystical and magical.
The plot follows Scarlett Dragna as she struggles to understand and navigate Caraval, a 5-day scavenger hunt type game set in a carnival-like island, where nothing and no one is what they seem and the line between fact and fantasy is blurred. To complicate matters, this year’s game is centered around Scarlett’s sister, Tella, who has mysteriously disappeared.
The writing style lends itself to this blurring of the lines. Some might call it purple prose, but I really didn’t mind. The main character, Scarlett, often describes her feelings in terms of color, kind of like a synesthesia thing, which might not feel terribly accurate or descriptive to some, but for me, it added to the heightened sense of the Caraval setting.
The magic was mysterious, and I hope that the second book fleshes out that aspect a little bit more. Garber sidesteps the issue a bit, using the characters’ lack of understanding as an excuse not to explain the rules to the reader…since there is a second book I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt on that one, for now. Otherwise, the tricky but precise consequences and the bartering with secrets, truths, and time brought to mind Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones.
Scarlett is the most fleshed out character, which is to be expected since we’re experiencing Caraval through her eyes. She isn’t the conquering heroine type, so if that’s what you’re looking for, be forewarned: Scarlett is a reluctant hero. She is unsure of herself. She has to be pushed and prodded to do things. She is a damsel in distress type and she’s okay with that.
If that bothers you, Scarlett may not be the protagonist for you. You’d probably like her sister, Tella, better. But it didn’t bother me. Not everyone is born to be a hero, and I like to see protagonists who are out of their element. It also helped that Scarlett’s behavior was grounded in her backstory, giving her good reason for being less than heroic at times. Her mother disappeared when she was a child, leaving her to play mother to her sister, and her father is abusive and manipulative (the one time Scarlett tried to sneak herself and Tella away from him, he drowned a man in front of her). Because of these dynamics, Tella is a woman set on breaking all the rules, whereas Scarlett is a woman who survives by the rules. Scarlett is concerned with finding her sister and getting them both home before they can get in trouble; she sort of stumbles into wanting anything more or daring to go after it.
As far as the other characters go, there are some promising ones, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better in the sequel. It’s difficult getting a lot of character insight in Caraval because you don’t know which details are true, true-ish, or completely fabricated until the end, and you don’t spend a lot of time with any of the characters beyond Scarlett and Julian, the sailor she allies herself with to find Tella.
All in all, I’d say Caraval is a fun escape, with enough magic, mystery, and romance to keep you entertained. I give it 3 out of 5 stars and look forward to the sequel.