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Book Review: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

In February, I attended the winter conference for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  At a session on young adult literature, the speaker continually brought up the book Caraval, citing it as a new YA tour de force.  The fantasy novel debuted in January 2017 and immediately became a New York Times bestseller, in addition to making Entertainment Weekly’s must list.  One of my main takeaways from the conference was that I needed to get my hands on this book.

Caraval’s main character, Scarlett, lives on a fictional island with her younger sister Donatella.  She’s spent her entire childhood writing letters to the master of Caraval: a five-night-long game that is held once a year, is shrouded in legend and mystery, and occurs on an island that may or may not be magical.  In her letters, she begs the master to hold the game on her island, an island that her ruthless father has never let her leave.  Six years after her first letter, she’s seventeen, only a few days away from an arranged marriage, and considering giving up hope when she receives a letter back inviting her to partake in the game.  Before Scarlett can decide for herself, Donatella recruits a visiting sailor to essentially kidnap her sister and bring her to the island where Caraval is taking place.  But when Scarlett and the sailor, Julian, arrive, Tella is nowhere to be found.  Turns out that the game is an elaborate scavenger hunt for something—and this year, that something is Tella.

Scarlett works with Julian to navigate clues and red herrings, but the game is even more of a mystery than she expected.  Who can she trust?  Can she believe everything she sees?  If Tella is not found by the end of the game, will she be returned to her sister safely, or not so much?  And, most importantly, is Scarlett crucial to this year’s game without even realizing it?

It’s definitely a fast, intriguing read, with each not-too-long chapter ending with a setup for the next.  The imagery and voice are immersive, and both the external hyperreality of the game-world and Scarlett’s internal thoughts are very vivid.  However, the third-person perspective is strictly limited to Scarlett’s experiences and thoughts.  Garber does a great job of developing Scarlett’s character and the way she changes over the five-night-long game.  However, the focus on Scarlett, and her budding romance with Julian, is narrow, often coming at the expense of anything more than a very basic background of either the game itself or the “world” of the novel in general.  In fact, Scarlett spends most of the novel frantically searching for a sister whom readers barely got to know as a character.

However, the 11th hour of the book brings a surprising, and pretty satisfying, twist that makes many pieces fall in place.  It makes the mysteriousness of the game, and the vague characterization of Tella, make a lot more sense.  Without spoiling, it turns out that this year’s Caraval is much more than a game, and it did, in fact, revolve around Scarlett in a way she never could have anticipated.  However, the twist raises almost as many questions as it answers…partly in preparation for a sequel, perhaps.  Caraval is unique, clever (especially the ending), and bold, and I would overall recommend it to fantasy and romance fans.

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