Stephanie Garber’s Caraval is a sumptuous feast steeped in the fantastical and decadent unto the final word. Set in a quasi-historical fantasy world that feels both familiar and whimsical, Garber’s story follows two teenage sisters, Scarlett and Tella, who both seek to escape the violent control of their father from their island home. Years of abuse have driven Scarlett to accept eagerly an arranged marriage with the hope of protecting both herself and her sister. Tella, on the other hand, wishes for freedom, adventure, and independence.
So, when Scarlett receives a letter of invitation from Legend, the mastermind behind the adventure game Caraval that grants a wish to the winner, Tella leaps at the opportunity. After all, a wish would free both sisters not only from their tyrannical father, but from suffering beneath the thumb of anyone ever again. With the aid of a young sailor named Julian, Tella wisks her sister away to Isla de los Sueños, the island of dreams, to partake in Legend’s infamous game. But when Tella is abducted and becomes a pawn in Legend’s plot, Scarlett determines to rescue her, whatever the cost.
Part carnival show, part adventure game, part Venetian setting, and part gothic couture, the world of Caraval is luscious and heart-thumping. It’s ripe with tattooed fortune tellers, burnt-sugar cider that literally sheds light on mystery, night-blooming roses that are more than they appear, and shopkeepers who deal not in money but in lies and mortality. Like the refraction of light on water, this story bends reality into something other—something magical and terrifying and breathtaking. Yet, through the fantasy of the tale, readers can see how the line between truth and falsehood ripples into something beyond our imaginings. Here, magic is a gateway for Scarlett to discover not only how to beat the high-stakes game and save her sister, but to conquer her own fears, desires, and self-doubt. To discover the truth behind her own mask.
During the five nights of Caraval, Scarlett is constantly reminded by various players and actors not to trust anyone or anything—not her heart, her senses, or even Julian, a friend of sorts, who helps her each step of the way. She is warned not to drift too far into the dark pools of fantasy, glamour, and temptation. After all, it’s just a game.
Caraval is spell-binding and unravels both the trauma and joy of being human. True, this story focuses on the love between sisters, but also relationships in general, and how family, loyalty, love, and even hate are not always so easily defined.