Book cover: Caraval - Stephanie Garber (swirls and typography - cover unconfirmed)When Donatella Dragma has her sister kidnapped to save her from an arranged marriage, Scarlett is taken to Caraval for the yearly interactive theatrical. But Caraval’s reputation is stained by death and madness, and Tella goes missing on the very first night. Can Scarlett avoid the traps and win the game to rescue her sister?

Caraval is one of my occasional forays into the world of YA, lured by the promise of double-dealing, misdirection and a setting akin to The Night Circus.

We experience everything through the eyes of Scarlett Dragma (no breathy first person present narrative or POV-hopping here), the elder daughter of a cruel island governor who likes to beat one sister to punish the other. Scarlett is cowed by her love for her younger sister and determined to rescue them both by marrying a mysterious Count.

Where Scarlett is sensible and repressed, Donatella is rebellious, given to stealing her sister’s things and pushing the boundaries. In the brief time we spend with her, it’s hard not to think of her as a brat. After all, if Tella’s sneaking off to the basement to drink rum with boys is typical behaviour, her father’s tactic of beating her sister as punishment doesn’t appear to be much of a deterrent. Yet Scarlett browbeats herself – continually – with all the occasions on which she has caused harm to her sister.

However, we get little opportunity to explore the damaged dynamics of sisterly love, as Tella pays a too-handsome sailor with a wicked gleam in his eye to whisk them away to Caraval and fulfil one of Scarlett’s lifelong desires to experience the spectacular (so Tella’s not all selfish). That said, the timing is such that attending Caraval will mean Scarlett misses the arranged wedding Tella is dead set against. Cue a narrative much involved with making choices and weighing consequences.

Come with me and you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination

The main body of the novel is a joy, borrowing the trappings of Faerie to concoct a magical setting, richly atmospheric. At Caraval, time flows differently, gowns change to reflect the wearer’s mood, and bargains are dangerous and unlikely to promise what they seem. A bridge may lead to different places each time you cross it. A new dress may cost you a secret – or a day of your life. In a neat touch that is barely explored but ripe with promise, time is the currency of magic; great magic costs more time.

We’ll begin with a spin
Traveling in
The world of my creation
What we’ll see
Will defy explanation

In good Faerie fashion, Scarlett is explicitly warned twice before the game begins that nothing is what it seems, and that she mustn’t lose herself in the theatre. Off balance, torn between her desire to experience the event and her fear of what her father will do if she misses her wedding, she barely engages at all until her sister disappears. Scarlett – and every other attendee-competitor – must try to rescue Tella or lose her forever. As Scarlett is plunged into the nightmare of trying to navigate an increasingly risky environment to find her sister, it’s hard for her (or the reader) to remember it’s not real.

It’s easy to see why Caraval is gaining analogies to The Night Circus: it takes place at a gorgeously-directed event, overwhelmingly beautiful and possibly deadly. However, let’s be really clear: this is a much simpler entertainment. But it’s not without merit, not least in its core plot. Scarlett is here to find her sister and get home in time for her wedding; while her eyes may stray to the fine-looking young men she is surrounded by, her motivations and loyalties are refreshingly sturdy. After all, she’s engaged.

If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world?

This is an intimate story with personal stakes, interested in its heroine’s self-awareness and development. While she is regularly if unreliably accompanied by a certain handsome sailor, Caraval keeps Scarlett centre stage. From being brave but controlled by her fears, she is pushed and prodded towards taking control of her own destiny.

Inevitably, this is an unsettling and dangerous journey in places. Stephanie Garber does a good job of dropping regular hints at how dark a game Caraval can be: riddled with secret doors, undercut by tunnels that amplify fear. It’s unclear what is theatre and what is real; or even who is an attendee and who a player. Scarlett and Tella were invited by Legend, the Master of Caraval himself – but as Scarlett comes to question his motives and his character, it seems ever less likely that things will end well.

All of this sounds like a heady mix of ambiguity that I should have adored. Unfortunately, the final act fell flat. I read a relatively early ARC, and the final chapters felt like there were further revisions needed – where it had previously tripped along, the dialogue now plodded and Basil Exposition reared his dull head. While the underlying ideas remained intriguing, there was less polish and consequently I found myself switching off. A sudden escalation of threat and consequences ironically didn’t help.

Ultimately, this is a promising first novel and I’ll hope that the issues at the end have been addressed for the final release in January. Still, approach this as an intriguing YA adventure rather than the first literary event of the year.

***

(quotes: Pure Imagination, from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory)