The cover of Caraval reads, “Remember it’s only a game…”, an enticing reminder that pervades through the whole book. Before I realized what had happened, I’d tripped down the rabbit hole to a suspicious and curious dream world. One invented by mystery to serve as the setting for an elaborate game.
Reading Caraval took me back to my teenage self, the one who devoured stories in a flash. The more spellbinding and imaginative the story, the faster I read. The strength of Stephanie Garber’s writing is her colorful and intricate descriptions that allow the reader a dazzlingly, vivid adventure.
The game is set on a small mystery island. The ‘island’ is like a blank canvas for my mind, the only definitive characteristics being a lapping shoreline and lawless ocean. Here two sisters, Scarlett and Donnatella along with a young sailor, arrive having received complimentary tickets to play the game by the mythic game master himself, also know as Legend.
I found the setup and backstory of the young adult novel Caraval a bit too convenient and a little predictable. However, this worked surprisingly nicely as I welcomed the ‘once upon a time’ feeling that begins all fairytales.
There’s an evil, domineering Father, whose wealth allows him to control not only his daughters but the people around them. And there are themes of betrayal, manipulation and torture, which create the dark undertone familiar in the classics.
Like an echo of these motifs, we find a recognizable list of characters: the two sisters, one bolshy and free-spirited, the other conservative and protective; a young handsome man who wants to tell the truth, but has some secretive allegiance that disallows him to; and the man in the shadows, his hand in everything. And yes, underneath all the masks and trickery, this is a love story.
Despite the characters being somewhat stereotypical, the inventiveness of the Caraval game was more than enough to keep me reading, and at a fast pace! The game itself is original and enchanting. Like a shimmering circus, the participants encounter an array of beautiful and sensuous things, from the extravagant dresses that shape-shift according to their mood to cups of cider that help them see things more clearly but cost the last lie they told.
Carnaval caught me with the prelude that it’s only a game. But as the pages turned, it really was hard to tell what was an illusion and what was reality and kept me guessing right to the end. I have to say, I thought I’d figured it out at the beginning, but I was delighted to find that I hadn’t.
What I loved most about Carnaval was the freedom of imagination. I felt that Garber wrote this novel for herself, as much as for me. I guess that’s because for me, writing enables an extension of the mind into the realm of impossibility, where your characters are who you want them to be, and the world is as you create. For this reason, I believe this to be an exemplary fantasy story as well as a truly mesmerizing read.