Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.
Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.
When the sisters’ long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show’s mastermind organiser, Legend.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever. (Goodreads)
The book begins with sisters Scarlett and Donatella Dragma, living under the tyrannical thumb of their father. Scarlett is set to have an arranged marriage to a Count she has never met, but who has been sending her sweet letters. She sees the arrangement as an escape for both her and her younger sister, but Donatella questions whether this Count is really any better than their father, viewing the letters with scepticism. Tella is the wilder of the two, taking her pleasure where she likes and determined to defy their father’s cruel reign.
It is only when a mystical letter from the one known as Legend appears that everything changes. He is the master of Caraval, an enchanted place that captivated Scarlett’s imagination when the troupe used to tour the islands. The letter encloses invitations for both sisters to Caraval, with the promise that whoever wins the game is promised one wish. Scarlett has craved such a letter for years, having written relentlessly to Legend with no reply, but with her marriage on the horizon she doesn’t want to run the risk of missing the Count. Of course, Donatella is of the opposite opinion and thinks they can win the wish and be free of their father for good.
She enlists the help of a dashing sailor named Julian to coax Scarlett to Caraval, with both sisters becoming more involved in the game than they ever thought possible. With Tella kidnapped from the off and her rescue held as the ultimate goal of Caraval, it is not just Scarlett who would stop at nothing to win that wish, with the other players proving to be ruthless companions. Caraval is a world where nothing is as it seems and everything has a price, meaning Scarlett had better watch her step if she is to reclaim her sister in one piece.
I loved the magic and mystery of Caraval, with no two days being the same. Even the streets seem to change their nature, one day seeming safe and the next life threatening. The world created is beautiful but deadly, and it is not clear what extent of damage endured in Caraval will have permanent effects once the game is over. Scarlett is determined not to rely on Julian’s help, but with him having played the game before he is her best bet for saving her sister and not falling foul of Legend’s tricks. However, as with the double-sided nature of Caraval, we are never quite sure if we can trust Julian, or if he will abandon Scarlett at the first opportunity.
As a heroine, Scarlett grows in strength and determination as the plot develops, with her beginning as a naïve young girl pinning all her hopes on a marriage to a man she knows nothing about. She has a fierce sense of hopefulness and optimism that carries on throughout the book, always thinking the best of Caraval and that Legend has set out special clues just for her. She harbours a strong devotion to her sister and will stop at nothing to get her back, even if it means sacrificing her own happiness in the process. I liked her wariness of Julian, questioning his motives at every turn and yet still feeling drawn towards him. He represents everything masculine that she has never let herself dream about, steadily becoming a temptation and threatening her close-guardedness.
Julian is as much of an enigma to the reader, with it never being clear if he can or can’t be trusted. He seems to help Scarlett whilst steadfastly professing that he is in Caraval for his own ends. His attempts to draw closer to her may be entirely false, despite what they endure together. I thought that there was always a darkness to his character even when he was at his most mischievous, making him hard to judge and yet proving to be incredibly likeable. He has a sense of fun and freedom that Scarlett struggles to understand, being as burdened as she is with problems.
As the plot develops we learn more about all of the characters, including the real reason Scarlett and Tella were invited to Caraval. In a world more topsy-turvy than Wonderland, there are surprises at every turn and incredulity with every page. I loved the creation of this fantastical world and am keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel, as there is so much potential for future books and further exploration of the characters’ histories. This was a great first instalment, and I cannot recommend this novel highly enough if you’re looking for a new fantasy read.
A fantastic opening to a fantasy series, this novel is sure to be one to watch this year. I can see this being a big hit and can’t wait for a follow up, with the characters all having so much more to give in terms of secrets and emotional development. I thought that this first book had something to offer everyone, with there being a great balance between characterisation and plot twists, with the world building being second to none. I thoroughly enjoyed learning the secrets of Caraval, but can’t help feeling that we’ve only scratched the surface.