Caraval by Stephanie Garber book review

Here’s our review of Caraval, the debut novel from Stephanie Garber

In her debut novel, Stephanie Garber has created an enchanting carnival of dreams and nightmares that is beautifully and vividly written. She takes you on a magical coming-of-age expedition about sisterly love that is paved with peril and sacrifice, but is also deliciously romantic. There’s a vibrancy and rich detail to Garber’s turn of phrase that is so transporting you can almost smell, taste and feel the marvellous things she describes.

Two sisters, Donatella and Scarlett Dragna, have been living on the Isle of Trisda since birth, having never left. They dream of taking to the seas to participate in a dangerous game called Caraval. Their father is a brutal man who exerts cruel punishments on them both for daring to break his rules. When he catches the wild and reckless Donatella cavorting with a sailor named Julian, he reprimands Scarlett for her behaviour.

Unknown to him, Scarlett has, after years of yearning, finally been invited to take part in the game by the Master Legend who extends the invite to her sister and an anonymous guest. The winner will be granted the prize of a wish, which is something Donatella refuses to let her sister decline due to her upcoming nuptials with a suitor she has never met. In cahoots with Julian, she instead kidnaps Scarlett, and all three take part in the game.

A huge part of the novel deals with the theme of what it’s like to lose faith after something or someone you truly love is taken away from you. The game involves Scarlett searching for her sister who has been hidden away from her, which in turn sees her strive for independence and have to learn to trust her instincts and overcome her greatest fears.

The bond between the sisters is beautifully portrayed, and when they are parted from one another a great sense of unease and urgency is wonderfully conveyed – so much so that the journey to reunite them makes this a gripping and tremendously moving page-turner. The steampunk fashion fuses wonderfully with the mystery of Scarlett’s adventure as she is tasked with solving five clues in order to locate her sister.

There are hints of Shakespeare’s Taming Of The Shrew here, but the ugliness of training a woman into obedience is upended through Scarlett’s evolution. Instead, this is all about taking the patriarchy down, and has a similar spirited approach to that text as Gil Junger’s 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You does. Garber also takes lead from As You Like It, literally placing her players on a giant artificial stage where they are invited to take part or observe, and she conjures up a grand feeling of melancholy throughout.

Early on in the novel, Scarlett enters a clock shop that sports a banner, claiming, “Its proprietor could fix broken imaginations.” It’s a clue pointing to what this is about, and by the time the final chapter comes about it serves as a wonderful reminder of the voyage Garber has taken both her characters and the reader on. Her story of courage and the importance of battling on despite disillusionment is exquisitely crafted.