Friday, 3 March 2017


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.

2017 has been a hit and miss reading year for me so far. I've one or two brilliant books, a couple of colossal let-downs, and a lot of middle of the road stuff. And then I read Caraval, a book that's unlike anything I've read in a long time. This review has been so hard to write, because turning my fangirl ravings into something coherent has been an arduous process! So, just in case I don't manage to get my point across in the rest of this post, I'll say it simply up front: buy this book. You need it in your life.

Caraval is an amazingly assured debut novel, so much so that I trawled Goodreads for ages looking for a psuedonym or previous books by the author, only to choke on my own disbelief when I couldn't find any. Honestly, this is one of the most well-written books I've ever laid eyes on, debut or otherwise! The writing is completely and utterly spellbinding. Stephanie Garber's dreamy style and vividly lush descriptions are a joy to read. Her writing sparks my imagination and emotions in a way few books manage to do, reminding me of how I felt reading Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, which remains my favourite fantasy series to date. At it's heart, Caraval is a very simple story, but it reads like nothing else. I'd need to be a writer of Stephanie Garber's calibre to accurately describe how I feel about this book!

The vivid descriptions of colours and their ties to human emotions were woven throughout the novel, and was one of the main reasons I fell so utterly head-over-heels in love with it. Red isn't just red, it's the colour of hearts and blood and shame. Cerise isn't just pink, it's the colour of seduction. Eyes aren't just brown, they're the colour of caramel and liquid amber lust. Everything leaps from the page like one of those old-school pop-up books. Stephanie Garber sprinkles her story with a little details that add an incredible depth to the world. You don't have to imagine you're there, you are there.

"She felt as of she could taste the red of the curtains. Chocolate cake drenched in wine."

This kind of writing could end up like the aforementioned wine-cake - delicious at first, but quickly nauseating. And to be honest I think a persons enjoyment of Caraval will live or die depending on how they feel about that kind of storytelling. But me? I love it! It amazes me how much depth and how many layers there are to a book that felt like such a quick read. Whereas some authors seems obssessed with loading their books with quotable sentences, the kind that look great in calligraphy font over a sunset background but read clunky as hell, Stephanie Garber manages to get across far more effectively in a sentence or two the kind of thing I've seen other authors struggle to convey in entire paragraphs.

The opening of the story is masterclass in setting the scene, without a surplus word that could have been cut in the edit to be found. We learn everything we need to know about the characters, their back stories and their aspirations before the adventure starts. No navel-gazing, no flashbacks, no unnecessary scenes or supporting characters only written in to provide exposition. It's brilliant! The story opens with Scarlett receiving her tickets to Caraval, courtesy of its mysterious ringmaster Legend, and stumbling upon her sister Donatella in the arms of a handsome sailor from another land. Within a matter of pages, Tella is missing and Scarlett is en route to rescue her with said handsome sailor at her side with motives of his own for entering the game. It's breathtakingly taut! Little details about Scarlett and Tella's past are scattered through the story when they're relevant to the present, just enough to keep you intrigued, but not lengthy enough to outstay their welcome or kill the pace with awkward infodumps that plague some books. I don't know if this is down to the author's writing style, a brilliant editor, or a combination of both, but major applause for somebody!

From the moment Scarlett and the aforementioned sailor, Julian, enter Caraval proper, there's a distinctly Alice in Wonderland feel to this magical world where nothing is quite what it seems and everything is tinged with a sense of intrigue and seduction. It's a world of colour and vibrancy that reads like Alice fell down the rabbit hole stright into the pink elephants scene from Dumbo. With a couple of hot dudes thrown in. Although it might sound weird, that's a compliment of the highest order coming from me as I love all of those things! From Scarlett's ever-changing dress (that switches from one utterly gorgeous design to another depending on the situation and/or Scarlett's emotions - depending on which would be more inconvenient to her at the time!) to a jewel-encrusted shop sign that warns would be thieves they'll be turned to stone, this is truly a world to get lost in. And it's here that Scarlett is forced to confront something that she never expected in the search for her sister. Herself. Having been so caught up in looking out for her sister, Scarlett struggles in the face of her own fears and wants in a place where there's nowhere for her to hide. People seem to know more about her than she does, dresses require payment in secrets rather than coins, and the truth is worth more than lies when it comes to finding Tella.

Scarlett and Tella's relationship was one of my favourite aspects of the story. It's rare and refreshing to come across a story in YA where the protagonist is motivated by love for family rather than a love interest or revenge. At first, Tella seemed like a little shit, always stealing from Scarlett and trying to get her into trouble, but it soon became clear how close the pair were and why they behaved the way the did in the presence of their abusive asshole of a father. Considering how little time the pair spent together on the page, the strength of their bond and Scarlett's constant desire to protect her flighty sister (sometimes from herself) shone through, giving weight and reason to Scarlett's choices even when they should have seemed totally out of character.

The subplot of Scarlett's mysterious fiance didn't really come to much, but her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness and throw herself into marriage with a complete stranger in order to protect her sister was the point, rather than the man's identity. Everything she does feel believable, and I was 100% invested in her search for her sister. I was a little disappointed not to get much of a physical description of Scarlett though. Given that everything else in the book is so richly described, I had a hard time picturing her the way I did other characters. Loyal, focussed and selfless to a fault, she's never the less a compelling protagonist and her gradual unravelling as the book, and Caraval, goes on is spellbinding.

I wasn't on board with Scarlett's initial damsel in distress status and her constant need to be rescued by her reluctant companion Julian, and I have to admit that in the early chapters I thought the romance between them was going to feel unnecessary. It didn't help that we're introduced to him when he's feeling up her sister! But I'll be good and goddamed if my cynical heart wasn't won over. In a way, Julian was something of a cypher, more a personification of Scarlett's long overdue acknowledgement of her own wants and desires than a soul mate. In theory, he could have been anyone. But then we'd have missed out on the latest addition to my ever-increasing roster of book-boyfriends! Despite finding Julian a deeply unsexy name and intially seeing the character as nothing more than a walking cliche of wolfish smiles, sparkling eyes and muscles atop muscles, he quickly became my favourite character. His scenes with Scarlett crackled with energy and sexual tension. I wasn't a huge fan of his nicknaming her Crimson, just because it's so clunky and awkward to say it felt a bit shoehorned in for the sake of a cute nickname ("Red" would have read so much easier - no pun intended!), and you could never be sure where his shifting allegiances truly lay. The hate-to-love thing is a bit overdone in YA, but when it's done right it works. And Caraval does it right! It doesn't feel rushed. It doesn't feel contrived. It feels like a consequence of the story, not a plot point in itself, which is my biggest problem with book romances. If they feel obligatory rather than organic, I tune out and disengage with the story. Thankfully, that does not happen here.

"When his soft lips touched her skin the entire world shattered into a million shards of coloured glass."

Sure, the ending doesn't really hold up to much scrutiny, and a journey itself was far more enjoyable than the destination it finally reached, but good god what a journey! I think any book which sets the bar so high with mystery and intrigue and twists and turns is always going to struggle to end with a payoff that feels worthy of the set up, but the character arcs were utter perfection. I've been in a bit of a reading slump for weeks now and this book well and truly kicked me out of it! The only problem I have now is trying to find another one to live up to it.

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