Scarlett Dragna has dreamed of attending the magical and immersive fantasy adventure called Caraval for nearly as long as she’s dreamed of escaping life on her colonial-era island, where her brutal father, the governor, keeps Scarlett and her sister Donatella under lock and key. On the eve of her arranged marriage, Scarlett finally receives three invitations: one for her, one for her sister, and one for her fiancé. In order to participate, she must make a daring escape to reach the island where the game is held. But if she thinks getting there was perilous, being there is even more so. For this year’s challenge, the participants must rescue a kidnapped Donatella, and while the game itself isn’t real, death is possible – and permanent.
Caraval’s dream-like atmosphere sucked me in. I have those dreams where I’m being chased, and it doesn’t quite matter what I do – I’ll never get away, but I’ll never get caught. Caraval captures the spirit of that perfectly, including an actual chase scene. Time passes differently on different parts of the island, lending a sense of surreal disorientation, and people bargain for things like ‘Your voice’ or ‘a day of your life’. I became so immersed that my head got a little fuzzy when I read it. I liked the unreliability of the supporting cast, and I couldn’t figure out who the heroine was supposed to trust (if anybody), which contributed to the perilous atmosphere.
As a heroine, Scarlett is pretty one-note, and that note is saving Donatella. I didn’t even remember Scarlett’s name and had to look it up to write this review, which isn’t good for a book I finished just a week ago. On the other hand, the ‘nobody is who they seem’ game made it hard for me to root for the hero or believe in the relationship. I won’t name the man Scarlett is falling for because it’s a bit of a spoiler, but he holds so much back and changes his story so frequently, that I didn’t see how Scarlett could trust him, let alone love him. As a reader, I didn’t see much of a ‘him’ there to love.
The plot also isn’t all it could be. I was confused by some choices made during the game, as the heroine didn’t seem to have explored all alternatives first (who bargains ‘two days of your life’ for dresses without first asking around?) The last part of the book bursts with action and revelations, and every imaginable character is there acting and revealing, and it’s a bit frantic after the earlier pacing.
On the whole, this is an engaging and original fantasy, with an acceptable, if not compelling, happy ending romance. I would have adored playing this story as a video game. I still enjoyed it as a book, and recommend it as an immersive and interesting escape.