Flatiron Books, 2017
Scarlett and her sister, Tella, have always wanted to experience Caraval, a traveling show and game hosted by a mysterious entertainer known only as Legend. For years, Scarlett has written letters to Legend, imploring him to bring Caraval back to their island so that they can partake of its magic, as their grandmother claims she once did. On the year when Scarlett is set to escape her island, her father, and her childhood once and for all through a fashionable arranged marriage, Legend finally responds. Tella refuses to cast aside this long-awaited chance in the name of good sense, and throws herself so deeply into the game that Scarlett must not only play but win, if she wants to salvage any trace of her family, her marriage, or her desperately held ideas on the world.
The “nothing is as it seems” nature of Caraval sets it up for high expectations of twists and mind games. Those things exist here, and they’re fine and adequate, but not quite as satisfying as I was hoping for. There’s no moment where everything clicks and makes sense or does a complete one-eighty. It’s more of a gradual ninety degree curve, with plenty of time to adjust along the way. As a fan of interactive theater in real life, I also have to note how incredibly frustrating and disappointing Caraval would be as a game for the average non-main-character player who paid and traveled insane sums and distances to be there. That one’s more of a personal and silly gripe, but I couldn’t help thinking about how awful Legend’s Yelp score would be.
Garber seriously knows how to set up a story, and how to set a scene. I knew I had to buy the book after flipping through the first few pages, which introduce us to Scarlett and Tella, their wants and histories, and the wonder and menace of Caraval and Legend, all with a series of brief letters. It’s a demonstration of succinct show-don’t-tell that deserves to be studied.
Likewise, the visual beauty and allure of the Caraval arena is vividly rendered, to the point where I now have a crisper memory of it than I do of many real places I’ve actually been. There’s a palpable sense of magic emanating from every scene, and the forms that magic takes often have an unsettling mischief about them. The use of secrets as currency within the magical world of Caraval is a memorable touch that serves to drag character revelations to the surface and even add a touch of dark humor here and there.
My favorite scene of all might be the one in which Scarlett tries to buy a dress by taking a magical lie detector test and can’t figure out the answer to “What is your deepest desire?” Characters usually have their secrets neatly defined and waiting on the tips of their tongues to be revealed, but Scarlett, like many people, has as much difficulty knowing herself as she does sharing herself. This is not to say, of course, that Garber does not know her.
While I wasn’t able to get as invested in the relationships as I was hoping, Scarlett’s story is ultimately one of outgrowing fairytale love, and discovering the need for something more mutual and substantial, so the romance works well in that sense. Altogether a story with the power to linger.
Want more Fiona J.R. Titchenell? Subscribe here for personalized updates on new books, discounts, giveaways, and more. You can also join me on Facebook and Twitter, or (best of all) become a patron to gain access to exclusive extras!