Caraval had tough shoes to fill. A fantastical game set in a vaudeville style arena, where magic conceals a more sinister reality; it immediately reminded me of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. But The Night Circus is a battle between two talented magicians, set against each other by their guardians. In order to win the competition they must outdo each other by creating attractions for an enchanted circus. In Caraval, its ordinary people who are let loose in a world of mystery that brings out their darker sides. Despite the similarities between the two, Garber has created an original story that seemed surprisingly more insidious.
Scarlett is the story’s reluctant lead. She’s one of Caraval’s players, but not by choice. Her impulsive, younger sister, Donatella kidnaps Scarlett with the help of a flirty sailor. Together they whisk her away to Caraval Master Legend’s private isle to compete in the game. The timing couldn’t be worse. Scarlett is soon to marry a man she’s never met to escape her father’s violence and protect her sister, but that future is in jeopardy thanks to Caraval. When Donatella goes missing, Scarlett must play the game to find her sister in time to return home for her wedding. But there’s more to the game that meets the eye, and her cautious nature won’t get her very far. If she wants to win and find her sister she’ll have to take a leap of faith.
Scarlett and Donatella are opposites, in looks and nature. Donatella sees what she wants and runs for it but Scarlett lives life inside her head, worrying about the repercussions of her actions. She knows what’s at stake when it comes to disobeying her father, and that fear permeates her life. She’s never had the chance to make her own choices, and being let loose in Caraval terrifies her. What if she gets things wrong? She doesn’t really break free of these constraints, which was a little disappointing. She trades her father’s manipulation for her sister’s, and it seems like she never gets to do things because she wants to.
Her synæsthesia colours the prose (pun shamefully intended), revealing her strongest emotions in bursts of red and gold. Violet is the colour of her fears. It’s a colour she associates with her father and the scent of lavender and rotting plums when he is near. It’s the most consistent colour/emotion in the book, and I wanted there to be more. Scarlett’s been kidnapped, she’s lost her sister, she’s caught up in a game that could destroy her future, everything should be in constant technicolour. The problem is that the setting of Caraval is so colourful anyway that the emotions aren’t always as explosive as they could be, and their effect is dimmed by other mixed metaphors.
Julian is the sort of person you like even though you don’t know them. They’re easy to talk to but you have a sense their holding something back. It’s understandable why Scarlett latches on to him; he’s the only vaguely familiar thing in an alien world, and he knows a lot about Caraval which could work to her advantage. Their close proximity and the intensity of their circumstances draw them together but it seemed inevitable. The last time Scarlett was emotionally involved with someone it ended tragically, and I wanted Felix to be a haunting presence, not just something she occasionally remembers. I couldn’t quite buy the depths of her feelings for Julian after three days. Especially with everything else that was going on.
That being said, I did enjoy the story and the world created. I’ve read some reviews that have mentioned it having a slow start, but Caraval took my feet from under me and swept me away.