This review will be largely spoiler-free, only discussing the premise and setting.
Scarlett Dragna lives a miserable life under the thumb of her abusive father. Her only reprieves are her sister Tella and her hope that she will someday get to enjoy the renowned annual audience-participation game Caraval, if only the Grand Master Legend would bring the event to her town. As she grows up, she abandons hope to participate in Caraval and instead finds a more realistic hope in an engagement to a man she has never met. That is when she receives an invitation from Legend, and tickets to participate in Caraval as his honorary guest.
The story that ensues is part mystery, part epic fantasy, part surrealist adventure and part romance. It was a delight to read.
The backbone of this book is Caraval. Essentially a multi-day audience participation mystery game with magic, it is delightfully fantastic and unreadable. Everything anyone says might be true or a lie, helpful or hindering, and there are more traps and pitfalls than Scarlett can avoid. The atmosphere is suitably intriguing and dark, and the puzzles and mysteries multifaceted and with interpretation upon interpretation that leave the reader ever wondering if the current conclusion is truly the correct one, even when the book is finished.
That said, it is also an easy read. This is a teen book. Scarlett is smart, and the book is dark. But Scarlett is also a teen who knows nothing of the world outside of her home and her island, and the darkness leaves plenty of room for hope and romance and self-discovery. I very much liked Scarlett, with her blunders and the way that she was always a few steps behind the game. The supporting cast, too, were interesting and enjoyable to watch develop over the course of the book.
Yet I have to admit that for me, true to the title, the book was about Caraval. I enjoyed watching Scarlett and Tella develop, as well as the rest of the cast, but I never cared for their stories as much as I cared to see what twists Caraval would throw their way next. Though speckled with horrors and frightening scenarios, I found myself wishing that there were a Caraval in our world, in which I could somehow take part. I have to admit that it has been exceedingly rare in my adulthood for me to wish myself into the world of a book I am reading, and so in that respect it was remarkable.
There was definitely the intent for a sequel, which doesn’t seem to exist yet. There are enough unanswered questions that I did wish it, but I do wonder how invested I will be in a story with these characters outside Caraval. I await the sequel eagerly.