Every once in a while a book comes along that’s so spellbinding and beautifully written that you wish you’d been the one to write it. Stephanie Garber’s fantasy debut, Caraval, is one such novel; a story so magical that it lingers long after it comes to an end.
Before we enter the world of Caraval, we meet Scarlett and Tella, daughters of the ruthless Governor Dragna, an unlikeable bully who thrives on fear. Living on the Conquered Isle of Trisda, the devoted sisters are controlled and oppressed, in constant terror of angering their father who punishes his daughters by physically hurting the other. Whilst both are hopeless dreamers, the sisters have very different temperaments; Tella is wild and spontaneous, whilst Scarlett is selfless and careful, over-protective of her younger sister in the absence of their mother.
Scarlett’s dream has always been to see the magical Caraval – an extravagant and immersive once-a-year event that’s “more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic”. Players admitted into the game, at the request of the mysterious and elusive Caraval Master known as Legend, all compete to win a prize, with only one grand victor. Having written to Legend for seven years, Scarlett has all but given up on her hope of an invitation until one day the elaborate invite arrives.
The only thing standing in Scarlett’s way is an arranged marriage to a Count she’s never met, and a wedding the day after Caraval ends. Fearing her father’s rage, Scarlett knows she can’t possibly attend. Yet mischievous Tella has other ideas, and she enlists the help of a roguish sailor, Julian, to kidnap Scarlett and take them to Legend’s private island. Once on the Isla de los Sueños, Scarlett can’t find her sister, and the initial panic she feels is elevated when she discovers Tella has been kidnapped and finding her is all part of this year’s game.
Realising she has to follow the clues to locate Tella and return to Trisda before her wedding day, Scarlett reluctantly becomes a player in the game and accepts the continued help of Julian, who’s played before and knows the rules. But, as Scarlett soon realises, nothing is quite what it seems in Caraval and she shouldn’t believe everything she sees. People who fall too deep into the game are driven into madness and Scarlett can’t ignore the whispers of the woman who fatefully fell – or jumped – to her death during a previous performance.
“Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.”
Experiencing Caraval for the first time through Scarlett’s naive eyes, everything is described in gorgeous and vivid detail. It’s a place of magic and illusion, where everything seems brighter and more opulent, where dresses change colour depending on the wearer’s mood, and bargains are struck not with currency but with secrets divulged and time given. Scarlett is completely out of her comfort zone, resenting a game she always thought she would love. Had she been experiencing it with Tella it would be different, but she’s so frantic about finding her sister that she can’t focus on the clues she discovers.
The game has a carnival like atmosphere, where the players go out at night and sleep during the day, but the stakes are always high. Scarlett finding her sister and returning home in time for her wedding is never a certainty. The more she becomes immersed in Caraval, the more Legend becomes an all-seeing villain, orchestrating the game and toying with the sisters for his own twisted amusement. Julian is the only one who keeps Scarlett from tumbling into the madness of the complicated game, but even he has secrets.
Garber’s writing is so absorbing that whatever Scarlett feels, the reader feels too; her awe at the magical island and desperation to protect her sister, her conflicted feelings towards a man she barely knows and her omnipresent fear towards her father. It’s her resolute mission to cast aside her own desires and wishes in order to find Tella that makes Scarlett such an unlikely yet loveable heroine. At its centre, this is a story of love, sacrifice and sisterly devotion, and that never wavers.
Charming and enchanting, Caraval is a pacey, cinematic and exhilarating book that doesn’t ever allow the reader to become complacent. There are devious characters, deliciously melodramatic moments and enough romance to satiate readers with a softer heart. And with the unsurprising news that the movie rights have already been snapped up, it hopefully won’t be too long before we see the mesmerising magic brought to life on screen.
Caraval is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton on 31 January 2017