Recommended Age: 15+
Genres: Fantasy, Mystery
Tags: Disguise, Diversity, Fake relationship, Magic, Romance, Sisters
- Moderate violence: Physical abuse and attacks resulting in injury and death.
- Moderate sexuality: Kissing scenes and allusions to sex.
- Mild language: Some verbal abuse.
Scarlett and Donatella have never managed to escape their island, or their controlling father. But Donatella is determined to give her sister the chance to have an adventure, especially before Scarlett’s arranged marriage. The two sisters find themselves at the heart of Caraval, a famous game played by ageless actors and ruled by a magical circus master named Legend.
But Legend has his own reasons for bringing the sisters into his games, and there’s more to their family history than Scarlett knew. When Tella is kidnapped, Scarlett must rescue her sister in order to win the game. The players warn contestants to remember that the game isn’t real, but as Scarlett makes each sacrifice and difficult choice, she can’t help question where the magic ends and reality sets in.
Caraval is a great book for sisters, especially ones with ranging personalities. Scarlett and Donatella would do anything to keep each other safe, and while both girls make sacrifices for the other, Scarlett leans towards caution and predictability while Donatella wants only adventure and magic. So their acceptance into the coveted Caraval games is an opportunity that Tella refuses to pass her by. Both girls are so protective of each other, and it shows in almost opposite ways. Scarlett is willing to marry a man she’s never met in order to free herself and her sister from their abusive father, while Tella is willing to risk her life for the sake of both sisters finding adventure, love, and freedom.
Scarlett is young and has spent much of her life afraid of consequences, to the point of crippling indecision. But Tella’s actions force her timid sister into the spotlight, and Scarlett has to move past her fear in order to learn how to live. She grows throughout the story, though she’s more of a serious character who is understandably overwhelmed by leaving home for the first time and saving the only person in her life that matters to her. Her interactions with the players of the game are fun and whimsical, and of course Julian is the delightfully secretive and dramatic love interest that challenges Scarlett to admit what she truly wants in life.
The games of Caraval are a life unto itself, seemingly separate from the rest of the world in a heightened reality where magic trumps all. It’s a place of mystery and allure, and the line between reality and theatrics is constantly blurred. The setting is perfect for performers and lovers of drama, basically a murder mystery game with an endless budget (and some magic of course). The descriptions are colorful and over the top, to the point where reading this book might be better than listening to it if you get impatient with writing style. The magically infused games are a fantastic premise, and the author has fun with it, even if the plot feels much like a carnival fun house in the way solutions turn into problems and answers seem too convoluted to be useful.
It’s a fun book of endless drama and secrets upon secrets, to the point of risking the plot taking itself too seriously. The writing style can reflect the chaos of Caraval’s magic, which combines with Scarlett’s serious nature to make me suspect that this story has the potential to be more fun. However, the next book in the series focuses on Donatella and she is much more suited to Caraval’s dark delights. But this is a great foundation for the rest of the series, and the truth that the sisters are trying to uncover becomes less tangled with each book. It’s not as heavy on the world building, but the imagery and intrigue are the defining characteristics that make this series stand out.
Caraval is every theatre lover’s dream, a dramatic mystery with different motives and characters each time. Unlike a murder mystery dinner at a friend’s house, there (usually) isn’t a murder and the stakes are always higher. With real magic involved, it’s difficult to separate reality from fiction. But that’s what makes it worth the risk.
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