Caraval, by Stephanie Garber

I’m a big fan of scavenger hunts—whether they’re about finding items or finding clues from location to location. Way back in middle school, high school, and into college, I created such games for my friends to play. I’m also a big fan of the current “Escape Room” craze—being locked in a room trying to solve all the puzzles and clues within an hour so you can literally escape. Haven’t created one of those yet, but I’m working on it.

I’m also a drama director, so I’m a big fan of people playing roles. If you can incorporate those roles into an interactive game—a murder-mystery dinner theatre, for example—all the more fun. During freshman orientation week at college, some friends and I wrote a three-day long murder mystery where other friends in our dorm played parts and received occasional info bursts as things were uncovered. I don’t remember if any of the incoming freshmen solved our convoluted whodunit, but it was the joy in creating the game that I remember.

Imagine me at my giddiest fanboy delight when I learned the plot of Caraval. A five-day clue-filled mystery game to solve? With MAGIC?!?! Sign me up now! And since the story is set in the time of traveling performance troupes, arranged marriages, and frilly gowns with corsets, this premise is like a hyper-interactive Renaissance Faire gone mad in the best possible way.

I don’t just want to read this book. I want to PLAY this game! Someone please send me a ticket to Caraval!

When she was younger, the book’s protagonist Scarlett Dragna wrote annual letters to Legend, the Master of Caraval, asking him to travel near her isle of Trisda so she can play. It isn’t until years later, shortly before her impending wedding—to a man she’s never met, the marriage being arranged by her abusive father the Governor—that she finally receives not one, but three tickets. One of the extra tickets is for her younger sister Donatella (Tella, for short), and the third left unaddressed.

That goes to Julian, a sailor of questionable ethics, who we first meet in what looks like a compromising position (if you know what I mean, wink wink) with Tella. He helps get the sisters to Caraval, in an unexpected manner that I won’t spoil, despite Scarlett’s protests. After all, she’s getting married shortly after the game would end, and thus wants to fulfill her father’s wishes above her own. That there is Scarlett’s biggest weakness at the start of the story, how she puts the desires of others above her own.

Scarlett is separated from Tella upon arriving at Caraval, and it is soon learned that the objective of this year’s game is TO FIND TELLA! A brilliant plot decision as it really raises the stakes and forces Scarlett to play. Not only play, but to do so with Julian, whom she doesn’t trust. And it’s a game—remember that, it’s only a game—that should not be trusted, as Legend has a shady history and previous players have gotten themselves lost in the game to the point that they’ve drastically changed.

I won’t go any further with a plot synopsis—everything I’ve said can be found in the book description—because that would spoil all the fun and danger and romance and intrigue and surprises along the way. All the seemingly disparate plot elements—Scarlett’s family history, her impending nuptials, the history of Caraval—were all intertwined. The major and several minor characters were also well-connected in unexpected and satisfying ways. Go ahead and experience this richly detailed world and these characters that undergo both strong and surprising developments. You will question who’s a player and who’s a performer, and whether certain events and details that occur are real or fantasy, almost like you’re playing the game. I know I felt that way. Several times.

I mean, the Caraval “playing space” (for lack of a better term) is its own community with shops, taverns, and inns. I compared it earlier in this review to a Renaissance Faire, and that’s an apt analogy. There are many items to buy and tales to hear—whether as souvenirs or to advance in the game—but the prices are all magical. The last lie you told. Your deepest desire. I LOVE THAT! One shop threatens that shoplifters will be turned to stone, and there’s a statue of a supposed thief there. Did the person really turn to stone or is it a prop to add to the illusion of the game? Who knows? Who cares? These details add so much vibrant life to this world, that it was hard not to get sucked into Caraval. Remember though, it’s only a book.

But it’s a phenomenal book that I didn’t want to put down, all the way past a really shocking climax that made my heart jump and then fall. If I had to be critical—and this is nitpicky—some of the reveals about the inner workings of the game during the book’s denouement didn’t have the gasp-value I would have liked. But that’s a really minor quibble, and it’s more than made up for by the epilogue’s startling teaser for the second book.

The only thing I can imagine that’s better than reading Caraval is playing Caraval. I’d like a ticket for the five nights to solve five clues for a game—and a book—that deserves FIVE STARS.

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Caraval is available at Amazon.

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