[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from work at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]
All her life, Scarlett Dragna has been spellbound by the magic and mystery of Caraval, a legendary performance in which the audience participates, and has dreamt of going herself. Now, though, on the brink of marriage to a secretive count, Scarlett’s sole concern is protecting her little sister Donatella from the wrath and violence of their controlling father. But when invitations to Caraval finally arrive, Scarlett is thrown into a whirlwind adventure of courage, secrets, treachery, love, and wishes. Can Scarlett discover herself in time to save her sister and still make it to her own wedding?
First and foremost, Garber’s Caraval is, as Sabaa Tahir insists, “a spellbinding tale.” This debut is so amazing that I think I need to borrow a few more people’s thumbs just to show my response. I couldn’t put this book down. I inhaled Scarlett’s adventures with little pause. The world of Caraval is mystifying and stunning, twisting and turning in a landscape that is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, the suspended fairy tale aesthetic of Venice, and something all its own. In a world where secrets and truths are power and currency, everything seems possible; everything is a performance; and everything is dangerous.
Garber’s debut is not just enthralling, but decadent; Caraval is a feast of metaphors and similes and imagery for all of a reader’s senses. We feel and taste and see and hear everything as Scarlett hears it. The story becomes four-dimensional, as if we are also taking part in the games and performances of Caraval. Smells are crisp, sights are distinct and detailed, and, most especially, colors are vibrant and more than alive. Snow becomes cake frosting, “[t]he kind she’d seen in bakery windows, perfect and smooth” while time becomes extraordinary, “like that moment on the cusp of a sunset, when all the colors of the sky coalesce into magic.” A fascinating aspect of Scarlett’s character is her innate sense of color. Not only does she notice colors as no one else does — “Cerulean blue. Apricot orange. Saffron yellow. Primrose pink” — but she associates emotions of her own and of others with color: “Scarlett’s feelings came in colors even brighter than usual. The urgent red of burning coals. The eager green of new grass buds. The frenzied yellow of a flapping bird’s feathers.” Even her fear for her father has a color connotation that reminds her of terror, of pain, of deceit. The descriptions and images Garber employs to create the world of Caraval are beautiful and unique, building a world that we haven’t seen before and may never want to leave.
Throughout Caraval, we get to know Scarlett very well. A close third-person point of view has us following not only her many experiences of the magical, shifty world of Caraval, but also her exact thought processes as well. We learn that Scarlett is a careful, controlled girl who cares for nothing more than she cares for her younger sister. Her concern for Donatella at the start of the book makes the exposition somewhat circuitous — constant worry about how and where to find Tella compounded with repeated math equations to figure out when they should leave to make it back for Scar’s wedding — and repetitive, but soon the clues and secrets of Caraval pull Scarlett into its games in her pursuit to rescue her sister. We experience her distrust and misconceptions, her stubbornness and growing courage, via this close point of view.
I’ll admit that at first I was little upset with where the story went only because I read a synopsis that made it seem as if Scar and Tella would be navigating the games of Caraval together. As a big sister, I completely understood Scar’s desperate desire to protect Tella from anything and everything, and I was looking forward to a story that might be The Hunger Games but with the sisters working together, not subbing in for each other. Instead, Tella is kidnapped and replaced by a male companion who initially only seems interested in distracting and lying to Scar. However, this “mysterious sailor” to which the official synopsis refers turned out to be one of my favorite characters in the book. I’m going to refrain from saying more only because he is so great and I want you to meet him yourself!
The only true criticism I have of Caraval concerns its ending, because everything else is practically perfect. Not only are there several “stacked” epilogues that leave us with several false-start endings, but the most significant moment of the climax occurs off-stage. I won’t provide particulars as I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was confused for the final couple of chapters because of how this secret was revealed, suddenly and abruptly. The rest of the book had been so controlled and detailed that this final moment was unexpected and a little off-putting.
All in all, Caraval is one of the best books I’ve read and definitely the best book I’ve read so far in 2017. This story of a young woman coming into her own courage and agency is enthralling and entrancing and deadly. Garber’s exceptional debut prompts both its characters and its readers to question truth and lies, to blur the lines between sanity and madness, to consider what we would give or sacrifice for our greatest wish. Who do you trust in a world of magic and performances, and what do you want in a place where the impossible becomes possible?
But, remember: it’s all just a game. Isn’t it?
Stephanie Garber’s Caraval will be released January 31, 2017, with Flatiron Books.