Caraval by Stephanie Garber

A review of the Young Adult fantasy novel Caraval by Stephanie Garber.

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This fast moving young adult novel has thrown a multitude of ingredients together to create, for me, a recipe that produces the epitome of my perfect ‘guilty pleasure’ read: rich and vibrant imagery, a fantasy setting not too far flung from our own, grounded main characters, a pinch of romance, an occasional dollop of sexual tension, intimate dialogue that both melts and frustrates, hints of violence and a splatter of very dark, disturbing moments that a reader can individually mould to their own personal preference of gruesomeness—this book really is my cup of literary tea.

Remember, it’s only a game…

The main character is Scarlett, a teenager who is soon to marry a wealthy man she has never met in the hopes of escaping her violent father, and her sister Donatella (a mouthful of a name but is thankfully referred to as ‘Tella’ for the majority of the story) who believes fleeing their island home is their only option. But simply fleeing isn’t in any way achievable, until two things conveniently happen in the first few pages: a rare invitation to the prestigious and illusive game of Caraval arrives for Scarlet, and a sexy boat-owning sailor called Julian gets acquainted with Tella.

There are many other characters along the way in this fast-paced novel, but not too many as to lose track of. They are all either genuine players in the game, or actors playing roles to fool the players and help move the game along, as well as entertain the spectators. And all of these characters are described as “very attractive,” but why not? This game is fuelled by magic, and the partakers and spectators want to be dazzled and entertained by the sights and experiences of the aesthetically pleasing Caraval, so why not the readers too? Plus, beauty isn’t restricted only to the characters, but it comes in lashing within the mouth-wateringly-sumptuous descriptions of the sights of Caraval; at times even verging on audacious and completely satisfying to discover.

I greatly enjoyed Garber’s use of colour to aid description of moods and feelings, via Scarlet’s observations, adding an extra layer to the protagonist’s personality. For example, Scarlet and Tella’s father is surrounded by references to purple, from his perfume of lavender and anise to his clothing, including his iconic plum coloured gloves, likened to the colour of old bruises.

I usually like my YA fiction to be written in first-person, as otherwise I sometimes find it a struggle to effortlessly get up close to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters. Caraval is written in an extremely close and seamless third-person perspective, and I found this enough to fuse an easy link to Scarlet and what she was experiencing.

I’m not a teenager, but I do really enjoy finding young adult novels that bring back to me all those silly feeling of naïve first ‘love.’ Caraval does this expertly. There is a scene between Scarlet and her love interest, and after only a few paragraphs I was so submerged in the moment it took me a while to realise I hadn’t been breathing, and when I did realise I was fairly reluctant to start breathing again, because the moment was so truly captivating and powerful that I didn’t want to fall from its grasps.

He said something else, but all she felt was his hand brush her cheek. So soft she thought she imagined it, along with the tender press of his lips to the back of her neck, right before she died.

I devoured this book. There really is no better way to describe just how quickly I read it and how much I, during moments of not being able to continue reading, really looked forward to my next reading session. I’m also a sucker for a map—a visual aid that I can refer back to now and again—and Caraval has one right at the start.

One tiny thing that I did find a tad grating was the amount that clothing and dresses were mentioned, and their detail. A little detail helps to paint a picture, but the amount that clothing was mentioned in Caraval was too much for me, though I admit I am well above the age of the book’s target reader, and a fashion-crazed young teen may completely disagree.

I wasn’t quite as satisfied with the last quarter of the book as I had been with what came before it. It felt a little like it wasn’t quite as controlled as the rest of the story, or maybe that is because what I wanted to happen didn’t happen, and that is very much a personal taste thing.

If you enjoy fast-moving young adult fiction with a hint of magic, some cutting doses of unpleasant imagery, and a whole lot of beautiful people, this is your next read.

Be warned though, the opening of this novel is fairly jarring and a tad naff. But hang on in there, just get past it, and you’ll soon get a quick, unexpected taste of the darker side of the story.

Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.

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