“On this isle secrets are valuable. Be careful about giving yours away too freely.”
Scarlett Dragna has never left the tiny island where she and her sister, Tella, live with their powerful, and cruel, father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her, and Scarlett thinks her dreams of seeing Caraval—the faraway, once-a-year performance where the audience participates in the show—are over.
But this year, Scarlett’s long-dreamt-of invitation finally arrives. With the help of a mysterious sailor, Tella whisks Scarlett away to the show. Only, as soon as they arrive, Tella is kidnapped by Caraval’s mastermind organizer, Legend. It turns out that this season’s Caraval revolves around Tella, and whoever finds her first is the winner.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. Nevertheless she becomes enmeshed in a game of love, heartbreak, and magic.
One of the major reasons I was so zealously anticipating getting around to reading Caraval was the notion that it makes you question what is real and what is merely part of the game. Multiple reviewers have corroborated this opinion and I was excited to see if I’d have the same experience.
I am happy to say that Caraval definitely delivered on this aspect of the book.
“She reminded herself it was only a game. But the madness part was starting to feel very real.”
So much of this book is cloaked in mystery which initially drew me in. As stated in the synopsis, the entire book runs through the five nights of Caraval and the hunt for Scarlett’s sister, Donatella. Being the inconspicuous sisters they are, Caraval immediately begins with the questions: where has Tella gone, and why was she chosen to be the center of this year’s game?
As we the readers traverse through the world of Caraval, laced with magic and trickery, we eventually find out.
The plot of Caraval is very multi-dimensional because of the duality between the game and real life. Certain things happen that seem to make not an iota of sense at first, but there are mechanisms working beneath the surface that we don’t see until much later. I really appreciated this because it made the world feel immersive, and it made the curtain reveal at the end of the book that much more pleasing.
In summation, I really enjoyed the “what is real and what is fake” aspect of the book. Related, I appreciated the plot having multiple layers because there were things that were really happening vs. things that were only part of the game.
Unfortunately, that is where my appreciation for this book ends. I found the majority of Caraval to be extremely problematic. I want to talk about three main aspects of this book that really troubled me, but before I do that, let’s do this:
Content warning: physical abuse, emotional manipulation, kidnapping, uncomfortable sexual innuendos, unsatisfactory POC representation
#1: The romance between Scarlett and Julian.
Here is where the first problem lies. In the synopsis, it is said that Scarlett and Tella are “whisked away” to Caraval with the “help” of a mysterious sailor. In my opinion, “whisked away” is more on the lines of kidnapping.
“Suddenly Julian clamped a cloth over Scarlett’s face. Frantically she tried to push it away. Her feet kicked up black clouds of sand, but whatever potent potion laced the fabric worked its magic fast.”
Firstly, the diction here romanticizes something that is not romantic at all (i.e. kidnapping/being kidnapped). But even looking past that, it’s very odd to me that Scarlett finds herself attracted to Julian so soon after he literally kidnaps her and brings her to the island where Caraval is held.
I understand that some people may read this scene and say, “well they had to get to Caraval somehow.” However, I personally would’ve much preferred another method of advancing the plot from the Isle of Trisda to Caraval. Especially one that didn’t involve drugging and kidnapping Scarlett.
Because this initial scene really put me off of Julian’s character, the rest of the “slow burn” relationship between him and Scarlett simply made me uncomfortable. For that reason, their relationship stood on very questionable foundation for me. I was not rooting for them.
#2: Scarlett as a main character
Seeing the world of Caraval through Scarlett’s eyes was a very turbulent experience. There were parts of this book that I really admired her, but at other parts I found myself very frustrated with her unrealistic reactions.
First of all, she is a rather flat character in the fact that she experiences little growth between the first and last page of the book. If I had to assert one area of growth for Scarlett, I’d say she’s at least more experienced with the deceptions that life can bring and now knows that people aren’t always as they seem. I have reasons to believe she’ll be more cautious of letting people in during Legendary and Finale (or, at least I hope so).
Here are two key moments where I respectively appreciated Scarlett and loathed Scarlett:
“When I was younger, I wanted to experience Caraval. Now I just want my sister and me to be safe.”
“Julian lifted his shirt, revealing perfect rows of golden-brown muscle, so much so she might have blushed, if not for all the blood that stretched across his abdomen.”
She swings to the extreme ends of her emotional pendulum constantly. She goes from wanting to make it out of Caraval with Tella to being blush-y about Julian’s “golden-brown muscles.”
#3: Caraval contains a variety of problematic elements I was not ready for.
From multiple instances of on-page abuse to painfully crisp rape innuendos, Caraval had a lot of mature elements I was not anticipating.
There’s a whole discussion going on in this community about whether authors owe readers content warnings. I personally believe they do. I believe that readers should be informed about the world they are stepping into and how it can impact them. The biggest warning I received from the synopsis of Caraval was the inclusion of a “cruel” father, but no where does it say “abusive” father or “murderous” father.
If you do choose to read this book, just be wary of the warning I listed above!
There are a myriad of other problematic things about Caraval that I will not allow myself the space for in this review, which is already longer than I hoped.
For this reason, I uploaded a rant review for Caraval on my booktube channel yesterday. In it, I cover the unsatisfactory POC representation and further explain my detestation for the dynamic between Scarlett and Julian.
As always, thank you for reading and I’ll see you next time!