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On the Shelf: ‘Caraval’ by Stephanie Garber

‘Sup readers? Welcome to another bookish column— “On The Shelf” is expressly written to help you decide which literary releases are worth coveted shelf space, and which are better left enjoyed on an e-reader. As a reader, writer, and fangirl with a passion for collecting trademarked merch, I understand the value of physical space. It would be nice if, every time you read a book, your shelf automatically expanded to hold it, but the disappointing lack of that particular brand of magic means that space (whether you have wall-to-wall bookshelves that tower to the ceiling or a single bookcase in the corner) is finite, and not everything you like can be displayed. This is an irritating truth some days and a near-impossible task on others, especially when it comes to bookworms who are influenced by gorgeous covers, or have constantly-updated TBR (to be read) piles from the fact that there are so many books coming out, and not enough time in a day to read all of them.

Since this is the start of a (hopefully regular) Fanfest thing, I thought it would be cool to pick a new author’s debut novel. Stephanie Garber’s Caraval happened to be it. If Caraval sounds familiar, you’ve probably heard talk of it sweeping through the book community, seen its tempting cover (man oh man, the design team hit a homerun with this one), or noticed it at your local bookstore. Maybe you’ve even seen it pop up in Amazon’s scrolling “Recommended For You” list. But does it live up to the hype?

Caraval follows Scarlett Dragna, a level-headed 18-year-old who doesn’t just err on the side of caution— she swears by it. She’s like a twitchy rabbit, ready to bolt at the first rustle of trouble, hyperaware of a fox’s predatory gaze. Scarlett used to believe in magic— specifically, the magic of Caraval, the greatest magic show on Earth. She spent years waiting for it to travel to her isle— but now she believes that marrying a man she’s never met is the only way to save herself and her impetuous younger sister, Donatella, from their father’s wrath. Scarlett has pretty much accepted her lot in life when she receives three tickets to Caraval, complete with a personal invitation from Grand Master Legend to participate in this year’s game. While flattered at having received the tickets, Scarlett decides not to attend, on the very real chance that it will mess up her upcoming nuptials (okay, fair, no bride wants to miss her wedding day). Donatella is horrified that her sister would rather marry a man she’s never met (hey, that is all kinds of side-eye worthy. What if the guy turned out to be a serial killer or a taxidermist?) than chase her dream of going to Caraval. With that in mind, Donatella enlists the help of Julian, a deliciously roguish sailor, to kidnap her sister and bring them both to Master Legend’s own private island, where Caraval will be hosted. But Scarlett can’t even be mad about being fake-kidnapped because Legend kidnaps Donatella for real, turning Scarlett’s daydreams of Caraval into a sinister game. Desperate to rescue her sister and get home before her father finds and kills them, Scarlett must learn to play by Legend’s rules. Only two things are certain: no one can be trusted, and all magic comes at a price (thanks for preparing us for this book, Once Upon A Time).

This is Stephanie Garber’s first foray into the world of YA fiction, but she writes as if she’s been enchanting hordes of fickle teenagers for years. Her style is fluid, her characters fleshed out rather than following a predesigned YA fiction mold. As a protagonist, Scarlett is a breath of fresh air, she experiences real growth from the first page to the last. Garber’s worldbuilding is excellent. A book like Caraval would fall apart less than halfway through if all she’d done was supplement the bare bones of Legend’s island and the magic he uses to play his mind-games, but every nook, cranny, and street is detailed with marvelous care. Too often in fantasy novels, the magic system is left vague, or it’s always warping to cover plot-holes from book to book. But Caraval is a smooth ride with no hiccups. If the goal is to ensnare readers, leave them wide-eyed with wonder at what’s going to happen next: mission accomplished. After all, Caraval is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, though it does come with a warning you’d do well to heed:

“Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime. You can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle. But before you fully enter into our world, you must remember it’s all a game. What happens beyond this gate may frighten or excite you, but don’t let any of it trick you. We will try to convince you it’s real, but all of it is a performance. A world built of make-believe. So while we want you to get swept away, be careful of being swept too far away.”

I’m convinced that Garber herself is a magician: she laid out (fantastic) feats and stuck to them throughout her wonderful story’s spellbinding twists and turns. Garber has uncovered enough of Caraval’s stones to leave readers wanting more, whilst cleverly sowing the seeds for the second instalment.

I went into this not knowing anything about what Caraval had in store, but now I can say with the utmost confidence that I adored everything about it. Stephanie Garber’s Caraval (and its successors) definitely deserve a place on the shelf. Head out to your local bookstore or grab your copy here.

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