When Scarlett didn’t answer, Julian grabbed her hand and hauled her onto the dimly lit, shaking dock. The only light came from the Castillo’s massive hourglasses and the churning red beads inside them. Aiko must have been telling the truth about the rain washing all the magic away, for the Castillo no longer glowed. It had turned from golden to tarnished. In the courtyard, abandoned tents flapped in the wind, their tuneless beat replacing the vibrant music of the birds from nights before.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval is a young adult fantasy novel about two sisters, Donatella and Scarlett, who are given tickets to a magical game called Caraval, run by a man named Legend. They had heard stories about Caraval from their grandmother as children, and were fascinated by the magic and mystery of Legend’s world, and of course its reward for the winner: one wish, no limitations. The older sister Scarlett wrote letters to Legend every year asking that Caraval come visit them so they could attend. However, their mother ran away from their island when they were very young, and their father is verbally and physically abusive – controlling their every move by injuring the other sister for any missteps. Scarlett is finally given an arranged marriage to an unknown and unnamed man and she writes Legend one last time – but to her surprise, Legend sends them three tickets: one for Scarlett, one for Donatella, and one for Scarlett’s mysterious fiance. Knowing that she may never escape if she tries to involve the unknown fiance, they escape the island with the help of a sailor named Julian, but Scarlett and Donatella are separated during the escape. Upon arrival, Scarlett discovers that they mystery for this game is uncomfortably personal: Legend has kidnapped Donatella, and all of the players of Caraval are competing to find Donatella first. But in Caraval, nothing is as it seems, and the more that Scarlett commits to finding her sister, the more she wonders what is real and what is just an act.

The character development in this book is absolutely stunning. Scarlett, Donatella, and Julian are complex characters and show enormous growth through the novel. Scarlett’s primary motivation is her concern for Donatella’s safety, and she often acts to keep her sister safe, even if it means her own suffering. She first refuses to leave the island because she fears the repercussions from her father, and it takes her awhile before she is able to enjoy Caraval because she is so concerned with Donatella’s fate. However, she does show a steady growth of personal strength throughout the novel, so that even if she does in the end act to protect Donatella, she still develops desires of her own. Donatella shows the least character growth, but she also is seen the least throughout that novel, so there was not much room for personal growth. She is, for lack of a better word, the more selfish of the two. She is willing to take risks for both of them and worry about the costs later. This pattern is broken by the end, but of course I won’t give the details. And Julian is, put simply, a mystery on his own. He often seems fickle, but his personality flits back and forth, causing an interesting tension throughout the book, and while I will not spoil the ending, I will say that I was satisfied with the resolution of his plot line.

Caraval is as much a mystery novel as it is a fantasy novel, and as such, clues to the mystery of Donatella’s disappearance and the greater mystery of Legend himself are scattered throughout the text. In many such novels, the author is either so heavy-handed that I figure out the mystery early, or there are so many red herrings that I feel tricked. Caraval, however, does the best alternative: I often read the clue, came to one conclusion, but found by the end that I was surprised but I still was not lied to. I was a little concerned about the foreshadowing at the start of this novel so this conclusion was highly enjoyable.

Caraval manages a great balance between the magic of a fantasy novel, and the realism of a non-magical world, and that balance is important because the magic of Caraval is the only magic that Donatella and Scarlett know of, so much of the world seems based in a world similar to ours. Their society felt realistic, as did the expectations on Scarlett and Donatella, as young women of lower nobility in the 1700s. The magic also stayed consistent. Even when it seemed to break its own rules, an explanation was always provided eventually, and it usually was plot-relevant. And the magic system was interesting – everything in Caraval is made to affect the playing of the game. Places change appearances based on the time of day. Clothes are bought with days of life. And as the players reiterate, nothing is as it seems. Scarlett can never be certain who is a player and who is an actor; who is alive and who is dead.

In all, I would give Caraval a 9 out of 10. Of course this will be best loved by lovers of young adult fantasy, but most readers could give this a try and find something they enjoyed, between the great character development and realistic setting.

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