Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

“Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find yourself magic in this world.” – Stephanie Garber, Caraval

Title: Caraval (Caraval, #1)


Author: Stephanie Garber

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Publication Date: January 31, 2017

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars


After this book remained on my TBR pile for 10 months, I can proudly say that I finished it! It’s always really satisfying for me to finally get to books I’ve been anticipating reading forever. For some reason, Caraval just lingered on my shelf, very slowly making its way to the top. This was pretty disappointing for me, because I was so excited about this book when I pre-ordered it, but somehow over months of waiting, that excitement dwindled.

Luckily, I spontaneously picked it up this week after months of waiting and it captivated me. Caraval is such an enticing mix of magic, mayhem, and illusion. In creating the world of Caraval, the author really made a universe her own. Though I did have some issues with holes in the world-building, I really felt like the ideas crafted for Caraval were beautifully unique. The concept of Caraval, the game, is something that I had not seen elsewhere, or at least, not in the way Garber creates it. Participants in the game are swept away by mystery, adventure, and the prospect of their ultimate dreams being fulfilled in the grand prize of “one wish”, but the real intrigue of Caraval lies in those who are swept too far away by this temporary reality. After all, it’s only a game–but that remains hard to believe when its happenings seem so real.

Beyond the captivating nature of Caraval’s game, I liked how it combined the themes of a mystery within a fantasy world. It didn’t feel predictable to me. Obviously some confusion will derive from the question, “What about this is real?”, which is question often asked by the protagonist Scarlett as she navigates her way through the game. This element of fantasy vs. reality offers the opportunity for some really interesting dimensions, as neither the reader nor Scarlett is capable of knowing what the truth is. This allows for further mystery on top of Scarlett’s quest through Caraval’s twists and turns. I loved Garber’s overall concept.

Some things I did struggle with, though, were related to world-building and character development.

First, I wish we were given a better map. I know that’s not a story thing, but more of a publisher error, but I think the map that’s given is too vague. Yes, there are certain locations that are pointed out, but overall, it lacks specificity, which is what a map is supposed to give readers. Readers take a leap of faith when they embrace a fantasy world, and while it’s great to have the creative freedom that fiction allows you, I think that any map that’s provided of a fantasy world should be tremendously detailed. Caraval‘s is not.

This plays into the fact that so much of the world was not explicitly described. Readers are given no concept of how exactly the world in which Caraval exists is laid out. Scarlett and her sister come from the Conquered Isle of Trisda, but what does that mean? There’s no explanation as to how their land was conquered or what that means for life there. We’re also told that the grounds on which Caraval occurs is a two-day voyage by sea from Trisda, but there’s nothing more than that to portray the world outside of the game. Obviously it’s not absolutely essential to the story of Caraval to conceptualize the outer world, however, the lack of these details did prompt many questions for me.

Also, I’m not a huge fan of the main character, Scarlett. The story opens with Scarlett writing Master Caraval Legend, the man who is in charge of Caraval, to beg for an invitation. However, the second she is promised to marry a count from a distant land, she basically gives up this dream–and it’s at that moment that she’s finally invited to Caraval. Throughout the story, Scarlett is reluctant to let go and embrace the adventure Caraval has to offer, after spending basically all of her childhood dreaming about it. This struck me as odd. I understand that certain hopes and dreams are abandoned as one matures, but Scarlett’s was rather abrupt. She takes on this overly responsible, fearful persona and it doesn’t suit her. There are bits and pieces of the story where she does adapt a more spontaneous, adventurous demeanor, but it’s not a constant within the story.

Perhaps part of the reason Scarlett adapts this responsibility is because of the aggravating, evil presence that is her father, Governor Dragna. I cannot express to you how much Scarlett’s father infuriates me. He’s cruel, brutal, and unbelievably violent towards his daughters, Scarlett and her sister, Donatella. I definitely was not expecting this book to contain such explicit violence, most of which seemed so unnecessary. Plus, there’s limited explanation for Scarlett’s father’s violent ways. The constant presence of this violence, and the need for Scarlett and her sister to run from it, did not sit well with me. Each and every time the governor showed up in the story, I wanted to scream. He is the absolute worst, no question about it.

Despite these issues, I have a great appreciation for this book. I really like some of the characters like Julian and even Legend. This story allows for many complexities, since the game has such a large gray area between fantasy and reality. There’s also some romance, so that’s an obvious plus for my romance-loving self. Caraval had a lot of hype, and I didn’t walk away from it disappointed.

Caraval: 4/5 stars!

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