Monday, March 6, 2017

Book Review: "Caraval" by Stephanie Garber

Take a little bit of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, throw in some elements from Marie Lu's novels, add some cool magic, and a little bit of Neil Gaiman, and maybe that can begin to describe the awesomeness that is Stephanie Garber's Caraval. It's wild and different and cool, just a rollercoaster ride of fantasy, secrets, and little surprises around every corner.

Scarlett Dragna and her younger sister Donatella live on an island with their cruel, powerful father. He's ruled their lives with fear and violence since their mother left years ago, and only cares about his daughters if he can control them. Both sisters dream of a life away from the island and their father, but Scarlett knows she is destined to stay there forever. But when her father arranges a marriage between Scarlett and a count, Scarlett dreams that perhaps her husband will take her away from the life she dreads, and allow her a little bit of magic and excitement. She dreams of that despite the fact that she doesn't even know her intended's name or what he looks like, just the fact that he writes her kind-sounding letters.

"Sometimes Scarlett felt all of Trisda was under a dome, a large piece of glass that trapped everyone inside while her father looked down, moving—or removing—people if they weren't in the right places. Her world was a grand game board, and her father believed this marriage would be his penultimate move, putting all that he wanted within his grasp."

As children, Scarlett and Tella were told of Caraval, a fantastical, once-a-year event, part performance, part game, led by a magician and illusionist called Legend. When they were children, Caraval used to be a traveling performance, but the story has it that after an unfortunate incident in the game led to someone's death, Legend stopped traveling. Every year growing up, Scarlett wrote to Legend, begging him to bring Caraval to her island, and every year she received no answer. With just weeks before her wedding, Scarlett has given up hope she'll ever get to experience Caraval, yet it is at that moment that she is invited by Legend himself.

Of course, leaving the island could have disastrous consequences for the sisters and Scarlett's marriage, but with the help of a handsome and mysterious sailor, Tella arranges for the sisters to head to the island where Caraval is played. Not long after they arrive in this new and magical place, Tella is kidnapped by Legend, and it turns out that whichever lucky person finds her first is granted the fulfillment of one special wish. Scarlett has no idea what to expect.

"'Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you'll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime...But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it's all a game. What happens beyond this gate may frighten or excite you, but don't let any of it trick you. We will try to convince you it's real, but all of it is a performance. A world built of make-believe. So while we want you to get swept away, be careful of being swept too far away. Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won't wake up.'"

What Scarlett experiences will dazzle, move, frighten, and challenge her in ways she could never imagine. She won't know when to trust her imagination, her eyes, her ears, her brain, or her heart, and more importantly, she won't know whom to trust. Every move she makes could put her or her sister in danger, and every move she makes puts the possibility of her marriage at risk, which means if she even makes it back to Trisda, she'll bear her father's wrath in ways she never has before. But with each experience she's never had before, she finally realizes a life lived safely isn't a life at all.

I wasn't completely sure what to expect of Caraval, but it really blew me away. Garber is an absolutely fantastic storyteller—the world she has dreamed up, the characters she has created, and the intrigue and mystery she has designed all make this story utterly engaging from start to finish. One of the things that struck me is that Scarlett felt emotions in colors, and I loved the way Garber described that. Throughout the book, I felt as unsure as Scarlett did as to what was real and what was illusion, and wasn't sure whom to trust or what would ultimately happen.
More than just a story with dazzling illusions and beautiful imagery, this is a book about finding your own courage, taking risks, trusting your heart, the sacrifices we make for family, and the power of dreams. This is a world I can't wait to visit again, so I hope Garber is planning a return to Caraval!

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