Caraval by Stephanie Garber Review

Scarlett has never left the tiny island where she and her beloved sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval, the far-away, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show, are over. But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But she nevertheless becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic with the other players in the game. And whether Caraval is real or not, she must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over, a dangerous domino effect of consequences is set off, and her sister disappears forever. Welcome, welcome to Caraval . . . beware of getting swept too far away.

Caraval was quite the interesting read. I’d been really looking forward to it and in some ways it was exactly what I’d expected but in many important ways, it disappointed. 

Caraval is definitely a magical, enchanting book with fantastic ideas. It was reminiscent of The Night Circus—a magical, traveling show where the rules aren’t clear and what’s part of the act is just as blurry. But also like The Night Circus, it wasn’t completely satisfying. I thought the premise of this book was great and I think the world of Caraval lived up to my ideas of how a wild, immersive, magic game should be. It was weird and wonky and reminded a bit of Alice in Wonderland, too, because of the inexplicable nature of the island and the strange things going on. You never really get a good grip on how the ‘magic’ works or what on the island even is magic and what was just acting. I enjoyed the setting a lot.

The main character, Scarlett, irritated me a bit throughout the story. She was mostly typical of a YA fantasy main character, which isn’t always a great thing. I felt like her thoughts about saving her sister were often repetitive and she just didn’t focus enough for my liking. She never lost sight of finding Tella but her naivety irked me. I understand that the rules of the game aren’t clear at all and she didn’t know who was an actor or a player or who was telling the truth, but I wanted her to adjust to the game quicker. She was wary and sometimes not willing enough to take action and too willing to tell the truth to strangers. I think it took her too long to really get with the game. Tella isn’t seen all that much but she was immature and impulsive and I didn’t like her very much. Julian was…a typical YA male lead but not even delved into enough to be a great version of the archetype. He was somewhat distant, snarky, flirty. Nothing new. Also, the sisters’ father was almost a caricature of a threatening, horrible father. His actions seemed over the top enough to be nearly comical. I don’t think anyone was that unique or interesting. 

The writing was okay. There was a lot of fantastic descriptions that painted Caraval vividly. The world itself was so wild and readers can easily understand why it was overwhelming for Scarlett. I really enjoyed how even the air had sweet tastes and colors but one thing I didn’t understand was why Scarlett saw her feelings as colors and described them as very specific shades. No other sorts of abilities were made apparent and I don’t think it’s supposed to be a type of magical ability, but I’m not sure because nothing was ever explained regarding it. I don’t know if it was the way everyone experienced their emotions or just Scarlett. Despite enjoying most of the descriptions, sometimes they were just too much and bordered on flowery. An example: “an iridescent blue waterfall streamed down like melted peacock feathers, disappearing into the ring of sunrise tinted clouds that pirouetted around the surreal isle.” Evocative: yes. Too much for my taste: also yes. I don’t think the writing did a great job of really putting the reader in the moment. The story progressed very quickly but I never felt truly invested. I would’ve liked to feel more in the moment with the characters and for the more important scenes to have been more dramatic and impactful.

This book was a breeze to read. The setting and basic idea of the game were unique and interesting but I think the familiar characters made the overall plot predictable. I mostly enjoyed what happened in the story but I think readers younger than me may enjoy it more. I really enjoyed that not even readers knew what was real or just part of the game. I would’ve liked it more if there wasn’t insta-love. They barely knew each other a week before she was thinking of him and contemplating their “relationship” a little too much. I just think the bit of romance this book had was unnecessary and took away from the importance of finding Tella. For some reason, Scarlett’s feelings towards him seemed the focus of her thoughts towards the end and it was completely ridiculous. There were some surprises along the way but nothing that really shocked me and in the end, it all amounted to nothing much. It ended on an interesting note, but I don’t think I’ll read the sequel. Caraval was entertaining and imaginative but didn’t live up to my hopes plot wise. 


What are you thoughts on Caraval? Did it live up to all the hype for you? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Thanks for reading, 


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2 thoughts on “Caraval by Stephanie Garber Review

  1. Nice review Madison. I have not read this one, but it has been on my TBR since it was published. I didn’t realize it is the first in a trilogy though. It is too bad it didn’t live up to your expectations and that Scarlet was annoying. Is this a YA book?

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