Caraval was written by Stephanie Garber and first published in 2017. It’s a fantasy story about the experiences that a young woman has when she’s invited to take part in a magical game. The novel is the first part of a planned duology, although at the time of writing no future instalments have been announced.

Scarlett has always dreamed of seeing Caraval – a yearly performance known for its audience participation and magic – but it seems that her chances have run out. Her abusive father has arranged for her to be married to a nobleman that she’s never met and Scarlett knows that she has no choice but to obey. He’ll only hurt her younger sister – Tella – if she displeases him.

When her long-awaited invitation to Caraval finally arrives, Scarlett is disappointed but knows there is nothing that she can do. However, Tella is not about to let her sister’s last chance at adventure slip away. Teaming up with Julian – a young sailor – the two fake a kidnapping and spirit Scarlett away to the festival. However, as soon as they set foot on the island, things start to go wrong.

Legend, the enigmatic master of Caraval, spirits Tella away. The game this year is to be a hunt for the stolen girl and the winner is promised to receive a wish in return. Scarlett is not interested in the prize but knows that she needs to get her sister back before the five days are up, otherwise she risks missing her wedding. Teaming up with Julian, the two work together to solve Legend’s clues. However, Caraval is a place of illusion and magic and Scarlett finds herself pitted against dozens of other players, all willing to go to any length to win…

Caraval is one of those novels that I feel was a little over-hyped. Over the last few months, I’ve heard nothing but positive things about the story. I’ve been waiting with baited breath for a chance to get hold of a copy, purely because everyone raves about how good this book is. I was so certain that this would be the read of the year. Unfortunately, I found myself left wishing that it was more.

I’ll begin by talking about the novel’s positive aspects. Caraval is fast paced and I found it to be very addictive to read. Although it’s a fairly long novel, Scarlett arrived at Caraval well within the first hundred pages and the game was swiftly set in motion. And what a game it is! As you may expect, Caraval is filled with twists and turns, with mystery piling upon mystery. The whole purpose of the novel is that the reader is not supposed to be certain how much of the game is real and how much is just scripted. In this regard, it really does succeed. As the days go by, Caraval slowly becomes more sinister and you do begin to wonder if everything is as innocent as it first appeared.

I really did eat this novel up because I wanted to learn the truth. I wanted to know who Legend was, what secrets Julian was hiding and whether Scarlett would win the wish. I can’t really talk much about the plot at length because it would be too easy to spoil things for you, however I will say that I was ultimately left unsatisfied. While Caraval seemed to hide many deeper secrets, like the screams of tortured victims that Scarlett hears in the madness tunnels beneath it, most of the solutions were shockingly mundane. For all its glamour, Caraval had very little depth.

The novel is a great example of style over substance. Caraval is beautiful, magical and evocative, but beneath that there really wasn’t much of a book. For a fantasy novel, it had very little in the way of world building. We know that Scarlett’s world is a collection of islands ruled by one Emperor, but we don’t really see much of it. While there seems to be real magic in the world, we also don’t learn anything of its workings or limitations. “Magic” in Caraval is the author’s way of explaining away anything she needs to. Why does “X” occur? Because it’s magic. That’s all there is.

This gave the novel a bit of an Alice in Wonderland feel. Once Scarlett entered the game, anything was possible. Yet, I don’t think that’s a good thing. I like magic as much as the next fantasy reader, but I still like it to have rules. Garber’s prose is beautiful and imaginative, but all it did was wet my appetite and leave me hungry for more. Explanations were virtually absent and the prose often bordered on purple, featuring metaphors that sound beautiful but ultimately mean nothing. For example:

Heat was everywhere, when a blink ago the world had been covered in cold. It tasted like light, bubbly on her tongue and sugary as it went down, making everything from the ends of her toes to the tips of her fingers tingle.

As I reached the climax, I was left with a sense that Garber had barely scratched the surface of her concept as so much was left vague. I really hope that this is something that she deepens in the concluding instalment of the series.

I also felt that the characters were lacking. My feelings towards Scarlett were a little mixed. At the start of the novel, she seemed too selfless. She was willing to sacrifice her entire life – taking her chances being married to a man that she had never met – purely to protect Tella from further harm. She also came across as a bit wet. She was so terrified of her father (though admittedly with good reason) that she would not consider ever putting a toe out of line. Yet she did at least grow. As the novel went on, her time at Caraval changed her and she began to show some backbone, eventually even being able to stand up to her father.

I also rather liked the way that her relationship with Julian progressed. While this began based on physical attraction and escalated quickly over the course of the five days that they worked together, I did find myself rooting for them. The chemistry between them felt very genuine and their personalities complemented each other quite nicely.

However, not all of the characters were so well fleshed out. The other players that Scarlett meets in the game, such as Dante and Aiko only really existed to serve specific purposes in Scarlett’s adventure and vanished as soon as their role in the story was fulfilled. Both Scarlett’s father and fiancé were also very 2-dimensional. Really, their purpose was to be a physical threat to Scarlett but there was no real rhyme or reason for their actions. Scarlett’s father in particular was, for want of a better word, just evil.

And then there was Tella – my biggest problem with the story. I can’t really talk about why I disliked this character so much, as a lot of it would reveal spoilers, but I just found her to be wholly manipulative. Some of her actions in Caraval were really suspect and proved that she would go to any length (and I mean any length) to give Scarlett the life that she thought she deserved. I say no more but if you read the novel, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

All in all, Caraval is a magical and very beautiful read. However, I was left feeling unsatisfied. The novel had a lot of style, but this wasn’t enough the cover its weaknesses in plotting, world building and characterisation. I will definitely read the sequel, but this first instalment was nowhere near as special as I’d hoped it was going to be.

Caraval can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book from

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