Author: Stephanie Garbar
Genre: YA Fantasy Romance
After seven years of dreaming of escaping to the magic and splendor of Caraval, Scarlett Dragna’s wish has finally come true—at precisely the wrong time. Her invitation to the exclusive five-day fair arrives right as she is about to be married to a count she’s never met. Marriage is the only way Scarlett can think of to keep herself and her impetuous sister Donatella safe from their father’s wrath. Donatella, however, has other plans. When her sister seizes the opportunity to visit Caraval, Scarlett has no choice but to follow her into a world where illusion and reality intertwine, where dreams can be purchased at the cost of dark secrets, and where to win the ultimate prize, Scarlett may have to pay the ultimate cost.
I bought the book because it had a strong concept that had a lot of potential. Not only does Scarlett get to visit this carnival of magic, but soon her sister is kidnapped and Scarlett is forced to play a game with the Caraval master to get her back. Why is Scarlett singled out? What sort of game will she be forced to play? How will she overcome the obstacles to emerge the winner?
There are answers, but they are not as satisfying as I would have liked.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed wandering the world of Caraval. It reminds me of a time when I went to Lightning in a Bottle—except that instead of sleeping in tents, you get gorgeous hotel rooms with jade keys and trick doors; instead of putting together the odd outfits with fake fox tails and tiny lights, you get a magical dress that changes based on mood; and instead of rows of booths selling cool clothes and art, you get beautiful shops that will sell you magic potions for the cost of a secret or a few days of your life. Caraval is a place you want to wander around in and enjoy all of its beautiful, quirky assets. That works out, since the actual “game” is rather thin.
I’m sort of a sucker for books about games, but by now I know better than to get my hopes up. Caraval’s game is similar to a scavenger hunt, except that the clues are so vague that virtually anything could be an answer. And anything is--the “answers” Scarlett puts down seem like the author’s poor attempt to justify her riddle. Nor do they matter, as the clues are all given at the beginning and one does not lead to the next. Supposedly other players are desperate to win the game, but they don’t really have personalities or do much after the first clue.
Fortunately, the plot of Caraval doesn’t really revolve around the game but rather Scarlett’s character growth. Torn between fear and love, Scarlett learns to take risks and go after what she most desires. To that extent, the story works. And while I don’t mind a good story about a heroine growing up, I really wish we could have that while also enjoying a high-stakes, action-packed, riddle-solving game.
As a heroine, Scarlett is nice enough, but she does not feel particularly unique. She loves her sister, fears her father, hopes for security, desires love, and describes her emotion in terms of color. “The urgent red of burning coals. The eager greens of new grass buds. The frenzied yellows of a flapping bird’s feathers.” I rather like this language, as it adds a sense of romance and emotion and… well, color. But it does strain at times.
The book fits solidly in the YA Fantasy Romance genre. Yes, there is a love interest and he is an appealing mix of roguish and good-hearted. Since Caraval lasts only five days, it’s a whirlwind affair by necessity—which isn’t really my cup of tea. There just doesn’t seem to be enough time for the characters to get to know each other—and it doesn’t help that the love interest is not what he seems. However, Scarlett never puts this romance above her sister, so she gets points for that.
I liked this book. It was a light, fluffy read, a good book to take to the beach. But it wasn’t a book that sat with me afterward, that made me think or feel or want to re-read it. I could probably nitpick it more, but to what end? Like the magical fair itself, it’s best not to look at Caraval too hard, lest all the fun and magic collapse under heavy scrutiny.