Scarlett and her younger sister, Donatella, have grown up hearing stories about Caraval, legends, really. Everyone knows about the exciting immersive performance that sweeps away its participants, staged every year somewhere different. Scarlett has longed to be able to visit Caraval for years, and for seven years running she has written a letter to the elusive and mysterious Grand Master Legend, imploring him to bring the show to her island. This year, she knows it is likely her last chance, because her father has arranged a marriage for her to a count, someone who has written her kind letters but whom she has never met. She isn’t nervous about the marriage, though, because she is sure it will bring a better life than the one she has now, with a cruel father who beats her and her sister anytime either does something wrong.
Miraculously, Legend grants her her wish, at least partially. He doesn’t bring his show to her island, but he sends tickets for Scarlett, her fiancé, and Tella. Scarlett is excited but knows she won’t be able to use them because her wedding date is close. Tella, however, ever impetuous and adventurous, enlists the help of a sailor who’s passing through, and they all end up on Legend’s private island, the location for this year’s Caraval.
As soon as they arrive, though, Tella disappears, and soon after she enters the world of the game, Scarlett is informed Tella is the focus of this year’s show — everyone participating will be given clues to find her, and the winner will get a wish granted by Legend.
With the help of the brash, handsome and self-serving sailor, Julian, Scarlett begins to play the game, though it immediately becomes clear it will be a dangerous venture. If she loses, she may lose her sister, her fiancé and the chance for a life away from her abusive father. And with others all competing to find Tella in a magical setting that only comes alive at night, with strange clues and performers who may or may not be helping her cause with what they do or tell her, Caraval may not be a dream come true. Though she’s warned several times it’s really just a performance, the five days seem all too vivid and real. Especially when she starts falling for Julian, who not only is clearly not the type of man for her but who tells her he is lying and keeping secrets just as he seems to be truly falling for her.
I had heard buzz about this book for months, but I couldn’t get my hands on an ARC, so I got this from my library as soon as I possibly could. And I was relieved and happy to say it lived up to the hype. I could have read this in one sitting if I had had that kind of open time in my schedule, but I did read it in three days in big chunks. I loved the premise and the idea that this “game/immersive performance” could be much more than a game, but at the same time the participants are warned not to get too carried away in the “reality” of it. Those warnings and the plot itself, with the way it twists around, kept me guessing and thinking hard. And the slow buildup of the romance (but is it real? or is it just part of the game?) was perfect. I really cared about the characters. And I loved the color imagery and metaphors. Now I’m sad I’m finished. I took a couple of days before starting another book so I could just enjoy the world and savor it before leaping into something different.
Rated: Mild. There is hardly any language. There are some sexual references in that some characters end up wearing some revealing clothes and the main character’s sister clearly makes a habit of making out with young men. The main character is faced with the possibility of being forced to have sex with her fiancé before the marriage, though it doesn’t happen. There is some violence and references to gory deaths but not a whole lot in the way of detail. There is a lot of peril.