I picked up this book because the cover intrigued me—which I find interesting, considering it’s just the made up word in a fancy script, but there you have it. It’s a clever title, too: close enough to the word carnival to evoke that idea, but just different enough to make you look twice. (As an author, I’m taking notes.)
The other reason I picked it up was because it’s narrated by Rebecca Soler, who (I’m going to fangirl a bit here) has the best voice for YA–her character voices are incredible! She’s like a one woman play. I discovered her from Marissa Meyer’s books, and have since picked up several others by authors I’d never heard of, just because she read them. I almost felt like Caraval had been written by Marissa Meyer also, or at least that Stephanie Garber (the real author) had read a lot of Marissa Meyer. Her characters’ mannerisms felt so similar to those in The Lunar Chronicles, and a few characters in both series even shared otherwise unique names. (The main character of Caraval is Scarlett, for instance, the title character of one of the books in The Lunar Chronicles. There’s also an Aiko, which is spelled differently from Iko, the robot in The Lunar Chronicles, but in audio you can’t tell.)
Anyway, the premise: Scarlett dearly loves her sister Donatella, but their father is cruel. As they grow up, Scarlett writes letter after letter to the host of the mysterious Caraval, a man who calls himself Grand Master Legend. She begs him to bring the show to their tiny island so that they can attend, but her letters all go unanswered. Once she’s grown, in order to escape their father, Scarlett pledges herself in marriage to man she has never met, intending to take Donatella with her to her new home. But just before Scarlett’s wedding, Legend finally answers her letters with three tickets to Caraval: one for her sister, and one for her fiancé. In order to attend, though, Scarlett will have to sneak off of their island on the eve of her wedding. When Scarlett goes to tell Donatella about the tickets, she catches her sister making out with a sailor named Julian. So does their father. After a brief and violent exchange with the girls’ father, Julian agrees to sail them to Caraval for free, if they will give him the third ticket. Along the way, Donatella vanishes, and Scarlett and Julian have to go on alone–Julian posing as Scarlett’s fiancé.
The Caraval itself reminds me a bit of Portabello Road in the film “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” or perhaps Diagon Alley in Harry Potter: it’s full of a whimsical sort of magic, crammed full of all of Garber’s favorite things (or so she said at an interview at the end of the audiobook). I love that idea: she just took notes about everything she loved and created a fantasy setting that included them all! Anyway, Caraval turns out to be a game, with the grand prize of a single fulfilled wish—but the rules are never made explicit, and it’s likewise unclear who is a player and who is part of the game itself. After awhile, the lines begin to blur between what is real and what is not. Scarlett is repeatedly warned before entering that things are not what they seem–and this is very key for the story, because it allows for suspension of disbelief at every point. We’re never told the rules of the world, and so literally anything is possible. This worked for me well until the very end, because I just trusted that there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for every seemingly impossible occurrence… but when the explanations came, they didn’t hold together, I thought. In some cases there was no explanation at all. (I won’t go into detail to avoid spoilers, but I do think the story would have benefitted from a detailed outline to catch and resolve the inconsistencies.)
Nevertheless, the characters were so memorable that I made character studies of several of them—I especially loved the shadowy character of Grand Master Legend, and the apparently trickster Julian. I loved the fact that Garber constantly kept the listener guessing. And her creativity—wow! Her world is amazing, and so detailed–plus, it has that indefinable quality I love so much, that certain brand of whimsical magic that makes me put Harry Potter movies on repeat for the background atmosphere. I’d recommend the story just for that!
My rating: ****