Caraval – Is It A Game Worth Playing?

Book Review : Caraval

By Stephanie Garber

Spoiler Alert!



Remember, it’s only a game…

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. And whether Caraval is real or not, Scarlett must find Tella before the five nights of the game are over or a dangerous domino effect of consequences will be set off, and her beloved sister will disappear forever.

Welcome, welcome to Caraval…beware of getting swept too far away.
(Courtesy of

Adult Point of View

I was interested to see how Caraval compared to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The similarities lie in the fact that both are a carnival or circus with performers and there is underlying dark magic.  Caraval is written in a linear fashion rather than jumping around in time and place, such as Morgenstern deployed in her novel. It is not an entirely fair comparison because I loved The Night Circus, and so, I have tried to see Caraval for its own merits as a young adult novel.

On the jacket cover synopsis the opening lines read:

A legendary competition.
A mesmerizing romance.
An unbreakable bond
between two sisters.

It’s important to remember that one of the themes is the bond between sisters because the two girls have very little time together through the course of the story. However, Scarlett is always thinking about her sister as though Tella’s presence follows her everywhere. I do not have a sister, so I can’t comment on their relationship from experience. I do understand the desire to protect a younger sibling. I believe Scarlett is an extreme example of self-sacrifice. The Alan Bradley series with Flavia, (the first book is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) has a different take on the relationship with sisters – in this case, they bother, humiliate and fight viscously with one another. I find their relationship very easy to identify with because I’ve watched siblings hate each other, but protect their sibling from other’s derision.

Scarlett acts and reacts according to what she believes other people’s thoughts would be. Her actions are dictated by her father, her sister, Julian, Legend and her fiance. There are a few moments when she recognizes that she needs to be able to live her own life, though it takes most of the story for her to find some peace with her own decisions. In ways, Caraval is a coming of age story for Scarlett.

Caraval is fairly dark. There is murder, affairs (without details) and betrayal. As a game, it intentionally plays with people’s emotions as though they won’t be required to live with the consequences of their actions. Julian is an anti-hero in many ways. He continually warns Scarlett away from him. He alludes to his past crimes or sins and feels that he shouldn’t be forgiven. Julian spews out half-truths laced with lies.

“I came her to find Legend and avenge my sister. My relationship with you was meant to end right after you got me into the game. So, yes, I haven’t been completely honest about things, but, I swear, I am not Legend.” (p. 237)

Can you guess where the truth lies in this statement? I would never fully be able to trust Julian with his track record of slippery statements.

This is really minor, but it bothered me when Donatella (Tella) shortens Scarlett’s name to Scar. First, Scar doesn’t sound like a reference to a girl, but rather a pirate – or a particular Disney lion. Second, when the name Scar was used it broke my rhythm in reading because it was so harsh. Third, perhaps the author meant for it to be harsh to remind us that she had hidden scars. She references scars on her body from her father, and she has emotional scars. I still would not have shortened her name to Scar. How about Lettie instead? Or, just Scarlett since Julian teases her by calling her Crimson.

A final note is that many new authors wrap up everything very tightly in their novels. It is a matter of preference if you, as a reader, like all the loose ends tied up. I personally prefer a bit of a mess because it feels more like real life. Garber gives us a “happy” ending with some mystery at the end. Loose ends are tied up and resolved to my dissatisfaction. I would like to not know more about Legend, but leave him more elusive. If I rewrote that part it would change the motivation of other characters, so…

There are plenty of steamy scenes but without explicit details. The language seemed pretty clean, especially under such trying circumstances. There is abuse by a parent of his daughters which may bother some readers. I would not recommend this book for young teens!

I want to read another book by Stephanie Garber.

I would say this is a game worth playing!

5 star

  • Michelle

I have not had the opportunity to interview Stephanie at this point, but I enjoyed her interview with Books, Inc.

If you enjoyed Caraval I would recommend Trick of the Eye by Dennis Haseley, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones and Black Flowers, White Lies  By Yvonne Ventresca.

And it might seem obvious, but I would definitely recommend The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.

About Tales Untangled

I am a mother of four children and have a passion for reading. I love sharing my treasury of books with my kids. I also do experiments in cooking which includes such things as Indian Tandoori Chicken slow-cooked in a tagine. I write stories and illustrate in ink.
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