Caraval: By Far the Twistiest YA Fantasy I’ve Ever Read

This was one amazing ride. At first, the appeal of this story rested in the atmosphere of the setting, filled with wonder, and in trying to figure out what is going on. And then it broke my brain.

A pattern is visible over a night sky. The text reads "Remember it's only a game...Caraval, New York Times Bestseller, Stephanie Garber."
Image: Macmillan

Premise

Scarlett has dreamed of Caraval her entire life. She finally receives an invitation to the magical carnival, where participants compete to solve a mystery with a wish as the price, when it’s too late. Her abusive father is finally marrying her off, and she won’t jeopardize her chance to be free of him.

Her sister has other plans. Tella wants to escape their father as badly as Scarlett, but she wants to do it on her own terms. And she won’t allow Scarlett to give up on something she’s wanted so easily.

But Caraval is not the haven from their troubles that Scarlett wanted. Because the mystery that she and her competitors must solve? It’s the disappearance of her own sister.

Spectacles and Magic

Scarlett is told right at the beginning of the game that everything is an illusion, and believing in the illusion is dangerous. We, as readers, have to struggle with which conflicting bits of information to trust–is the danger real, or does believing in it make it real? Should we be rooting for Scarlett to take every strange experience seriously, or to think it’s part of the act? And what is happening to Scarlett’s sister in the meantime?

There are scraps of information for Scarlett to find which could lead to her sister, but she has to make sacrifices for them. Her voice, her secrets, her time. She must pay for everything with a currency that’s deeply personal. It’s so much fun to see what bit of magic she’ll encounter next, what the price for it will be, and whether or not it’ll be worth it.

Layers of mystery

There are so many questions for this novel to answer. Why did Scarlett receive this invitation? Who is the sailor who brings the sisters to Caraval, and what is he after? Is this Caraval a good or bad thing, and what should be done about it either way? What does Legend, the man behind the magic, want?

All of this weaves together into a tale of sacrifice and freedom, as Scarlett slowly learns to shed the fear that’s driven her for her entire life. And brings us to a whole tangle of twists that had me pretty emotionally comprised by the end.

Seriously, this story–just when you think you know what’s going on, no you don’t.

Fun, powerful read.