Magic and Mayhem: A Review of Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Caraval (2017)
Written by: Stephanie Garber
Genre: Teen/Fantasy
Pages: 407 (Hardcover)
Publisher: Flatiron Books

Why I Chose It: Caraval first enticed me with its cover, then more with the magical ticket on the back cover, and then finally with the description within the jacket. I like carnivals and games and magic, and I have two sisters. While the premise itself sounds simple enough, just like Caraval, it is far from so. The final piece that clinched it was the boy, Julian. The last time I encountered someone named Julian was in L.J. Smith’s The Forbidden Game trilogy, which I adore. I knew I shouldn’t compare completely separate book characters, but I really hoped Stephanie Garber’s Julian would measure up to my expectations (spoiler alert: he did).

The premise:

Whatever you’ve heard about Caraval, it doesn’t compare to the reality. It’s more than just a game or a performance. It’s the closest you’ll ever find to magic in this world…

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.

Spoiler free review below!

Discussion: Fun fact: I read Caraval several months ago when it first came out. So why have I waited this long to review it? Because the first time I read it, I got so eager to know the mystery of such a magical place, to see the final details of the game unmasked, that I ended up reading it rather quickly. I knew I was missing delightful nuggets of description, tiny but lovely details that I wanted to indulge in later. Reading it a second time gives me the ability to notice all those things — as well as some fun details that only make sense after a first read through. The way you catch moments in a movie the second and third times you see it.

Initially, Scarlett drove me nuts. She had such tunnel-vision when it came to finding Tella that she was failing to truly look at all the wonders around her. It was as though she refused to listen to pretty much everyone, and was so convinced her sister was in trouble despite having no real basis for this. Likewise, her logic about getting back to their father baffled me, especially when he was such an awful man. Eventually, though, Scarlett snapped out of it and took up the reins of her own destiny — ironically just around the time I’d convinced myself to chill out and remember that Scarlett clearly has issues and has been abused in a lot of ways. In my head I often get frustrated when a character doesn’t do what I think they should be doing, especially when they’re female and I’m sticking myself into their shoes (though often not with their backstory).

The setting is amazing. Stephanie Garber delivers Caraval to us in such a lush manner that I want to see it, to taste it, to be there, and to play. I want this place to be real and I want a magical gown. The descriptions are what I wish I could do in my own writing because they are so rich and vivid. Hell, I had to go get my own thesaurus just to find the right words to describe hers. The place and the words creating it are a sliver short of beating out the story as my favorite thing. I would say the only equal I’ve experienced before in terms of such sumptuous wordage is Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I love it. Love it to pieces.

As with most books, I tend to try and guess the ending. Who is good, who is bad. Who Scarlett could actually trust. How real was this game being played, etc. But then things started to happen that I did not see coming — another delight. Once the end began to unravel and show its true colors, I made my guess. And I was wrong. So I made another. Again, wrong. So I made more, and continued to be wrong. Finally I stopped guessing altogether and let the end jump out from behind the curtains in all its glory, and my, what a performance it gave.

I’m enjoying my second read through as well, noting all those things I missed, picking up all the colors and glittery things and cheeky hints you’d never spot unless you’d attended the game once before. I loved this book so much I made it my personal handsell at work, trying to entice both fellow employees and customers alike. And I don’t mind saying I’ve done a tidy job of sending many a book home with eager hands — including my alter ego (a lovely co-worker who shares my name), who came in one day giving me some sassy side-eye. She’d bought Caraval only days before and had almost arrived late because she was so close to the end she stayed home until she finished it.

Me: “But did you like it?”
Her: “YES!”
Mission accomplished.

In Conclusion: Within Scarlett’s world, Caraval performs only once a year and never in the same place twice. Luckily for me — and many other readers — Caraval can perform multiple times every year, and always within my own two hands. It’s a rare occasion that I buy a book in hardcover, but when I do it’s because I know for a fact I will read it over and over again. The place Stephanie Garber has created and the descriptions she uses are is like swimming in a sea of candy for me. If you adore magic and places overflowing with it — as well as and ending that’s as hidden as Legend himself — it’s the perfect book to pick up. Oh, and did I mention there will be a second book? I’m quite beside myself regarding Master Legend’s next performance…


  • Shara White June 14, 2017 at 1:57 pm

    So I am so very tempted to read this. It’s definitely on my list!

    • Nicole Taft June 14, 2017 at 7:49 pm

      …………Dooooo iiiiiiiit…….

  • Casey Price June 16, 2017 at 1:47 am

    Well, you’ve convinced me. I just bought the ebook, so if you’re counting long distance sales, add another to your tally 🙂

    • Shara White June 16, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Ooooooh….. now I must await your comments to this post to see if I should read it! 🙂

      • Casey Price June 18, 2017 at 9:15 pm

        You should read it, but pick a weekend when you don’t have anything pressing to do. I just finished it and have the biggest book hangover I’ve had in a while.

        • Nicole Taft June 18, 2017 at 9:30 pm



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