This book is good. If you want the short and sweet version of this review, I’d say read it. It has flaws, sure, but it’s pros outweigh its cons for me and the mysteries, characters and world are worth getting through them because there’s major payoff at the plots conclusion. Plus, the sequel book sounds like it’ll be great after the epilogue! I just wanted to get that out of the way: This is a good book, if you like fantasy, romance, and mystery, check it out. But for those of you who want a more in depth review, keep reading!
Welcome, welcome to Caraval – Stephanie Garber’s sweeping tale of two sisters who escape their ruthless father when they enter the dangerous intrigue of a legendary game.
Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved 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. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever. – From Audible
The world building is done interestingly, though I won’t say it’s perfect. We see the world through the main characters eyes, and due to her upbringing, she has a very narrow world view. We get a description of how the world works, and the way finding out the basics of the world is done in a well rounded way that isn’t just an exposition dump. There are a lot of vague descriptions when we get to Caraval that I felt tried to lend to the mystery – but at the same time, parts of the book were really frustrating to read because of how vague the author kept descriptions. The magic system in Caraval alssso…doesn’t really make sense, in all honesty. But if you ignore that and just come along for the ride, the book is enjoyable.
The pacing is the biggest issue for me with the book, along with Scarlet in the first half of the story (we’ll get to that in the characters section). I was so frustrated with how the book was progressing, and where it was trying to go in the first half, that I had to go read some reviews with minor spoilers in it. They really just mentioned what characters would be popping up, and when I saw that my interest in the book was re-engaged. But, the book doesn’t get interesting for me until around chapter 17 to chapter 20 – that’s when the book starts to get really good, and super engaging. I marathoned the 2nd half of the book in 2 days, it just was really great. The stakes were raised properly, it got really intense, and the characters all had mysteries I wanted to see solved. Scarlet is amazing in the 2nd half of the book as well, and her character development had me rooting for her the entire book.
The plot was…well, the plot threads aren’t all answered, but the plot threads for the first book are. I don’t think the multitude of plot twists at the end were all good, some of them felt like they were just thinly vailed reasons to keep characters in the game for a sequel novel. Although all the plot twists weren’t welcome for me, the overall progression of the plot was slow in the first half, fast paced in the second. When Scarlet couldn’t figure out obvious clues though, I was banging my head against the wall! It’s a major irritant of mine when a character can’t figure out something that is so freaking obvious!
There were a lot of predictable plot threads, and a lot of convoluted plot twists, but if you suspend your disbelief and just enjoy this book for what it is, it’s tons of fun.
This is where the book shines. The characters are great! All well fleshed out, very realistic characters you feel for. Scarlet, as I said, really annoyed me in the beginning: but, the reasons she acted the way she did in the first half of the book were well explained, and her character arc was masterfully done. I’m always annoyed with characters who are indecisive, but knowing what Scarlet has gone through her entire life, I felt awful for being annoyed with her because I know why she was acting the way she did. And, that frustration had major payoff, because when Scarlet comes into her own, wow is she fierce! Like I said in the above section by books end I was rooting for her, and absolutely adored her. I really hope she appears in the sequel books, she’s so great.
Julian is another example of how well Garber writes characters. He has secrets to hide, but the person we see is the person he is, and he’s a great foil for Scarlet. Their relationships progression is one of the gems in this book. No cases of insta love: Their relationship grows from distrust, to trust, to friendship, to love and it’s throughout the entirety of the book, so once again, really realistic. When he finally spills the beans about his true identity, I wasn’t really surprised to be honest. The two things he wound up being, were two of my theories very early on in the book, but I thought what the final reveal was was a great way to subvert the readers expectations of what the reveal was going to be.
Scarlet and Julian are the perfect couple, and that’s not to say they’re both perfect. They know how to push each other to be the best people they can be, accept each other for all of their flaws, know how to make each other brave and strong and it’s such a breath of fresh air to see a grounded relationship in a YA novel. 10/10, OTP!
Donnatella, much like Caraval, is a bundle of magic and mystery. She does something that you’d originally think was horrible and selfish, but when you see the consequences of her actions, you see her in a whole new light. Tella is selfless, brave, and just as strong, if not more so, than Scarlet and we see this both in the beginning, and end of the book. But to say any more about Tella would be a spoiler, so I’ll stop there XD
Governor Dragna is the worst you can get. The perfect villain, because you hate him from the start and want to see him get his (luckily, we do). You see the effect his abuse has had on both Scarlet and Tella, and it makes you hate him even more. That’s part of why Scarlet’s development is so amazing: She escapes her Father’s control, by openly defying him, and it’s soooo amazing!
The supporting cast is all great. I’m especially fond of Dante and Iko, but Legend is the perfect anti-hero, who by books end you still don’t really know anything about. I hope the next book in the series explores the mystery of Legend a lot more, because seeing him in this book was interesting but made you want to see more. No matter how big, or how small the cast member is in Caraval, they’re all wonderful to watch.
This is the one hit I’ll give the book. The writing tries to be whimsical with flowery pros, but all it does is frustrate the reader at points. Scarlet feels her emotions attached to colors, which I thought was interesting in the beginning because I thought that would somehow link to the magic of Caraval. But nope: It’s just how she feels emotions, so throughout the entire book we get to read things like “The gray ash of disappointment” “the violet danger” “the emerald greed” and to me, it just felt like a lazy way to not have to actually explain to the reader what was going on in any detail. Along with that, descriptions are made into vague pros like “Our kiss felt like the beginning of something and the start of something new”, “It tasted like midnight”, “her dress was periwinkle, the color of happy endings” and none of those things equate to anything in my mind other than vague, non-descript descriptors that are just there to try and make the book sound a lot more introspective than it actually is. Would it be so hard just to say Scarlet tasted something, and it was spicy? I don’t think so! I know Garber was trying to have “The magic of Caraval” apparent through her pros, but really it just got annoying after reading through the 100th metaphor. I really hope in her next book, she uses these in moderation and gives us a bit more of a grounded sounding narrative because there were so many times I just went “There’s no way I would even know what midnight would taste like because it’s not a sensation attached to taste”. Using a completely opposite word to describe another sensory detail isn’t good writing, it’s just overly involved writing that’s distracting.
Julian had a “nickname” for Scarlet the entire book that was super annoying too. Crimson. Crimson? That isn’t a nickname, it’s a synonym! Once again, another thing thrown in that makes absolutely no sense and adds nothing but irritation to the narrative.
But I will say: I freaking adore how every one of Scarlet’s dresses were described. That was perfectly done. I could totally picture each gown, and ugh it just made the fashionista in me squeal: all so pretty!
In the end, I loooooved this book. It’s a great tale of two sisters who love each other so much, that they fight to keep the other safe in their own way. It’s also a tale of two abused young women fighting to come into their own, and be free of their Father, both in very different ways. The backdrop is the magical game that is Caraval, full of magic and secrets, and secrets and magic! But in all seriousness, this is a really great first book in a series. If you’re ok with a good magical mystery, wrapped in romance, and fantasy, pick up this book. As long as you’re willing to turn your brain off for a while and just enjoy the ride.
The epilogue is pretty clear in the character who we’ll be following in the next book, and I really can’t wait to read it!
To me the mark of a good book is a book that has you thinking about it days after you’ve read it. Thinking about what parts in the book now make sense after getting to the end, how the characters will be in the next book, things like that. I’m still thinking about Caraval days after I read it, and finishing it left a really good feeling for me. So despite any flaws I see in this book, or any discrepancies’ I have with the writing, I think Caraval is an amazing story that deserves to have been told.
Have you read Caraval? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comment’s!