Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.
Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.
When the sisters' long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show's mastermind organiser, Legend.
Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.
The circus been the subject of some remarking writing in recent years, from the marvellously moving Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti to The Night Circus' unbridled delight, so I came to Caraval—a book about which there has much such buzz—with hope of happiness in my heart. Sadly, Stephanie Garber's debut is more like a watered-down Water For Elephants than either of the efforts aforementioned.
"It took seven years to get the letter right." (p.3) Seven years of begging and pleading. Seven years of congratulations and salutations. Scarlett tried asking the master of Caraval for tickets to the greatest show the world has known on her own behalf—alas, he didn't answer. She tried intimating that it would be her darling little sister's wish to play the planet's greatest game—but no dice were ever delivered. Perversely, then, it was only when Scarlett wrote to tell Legend that her imminent marriage meant she'd no longer be able to attend in any event that an invitation finally came in the mail.
Three invitations arrive, actually: one for her, one for her mysterious husband-to-be, and one for her no longer so little sister Tella. When that latter sees Legend's letter, she does her utmost to convince Scarlett to take him up on his offer:
Nothing we do is safe. But this is worth the risk. You've waited your whole life for this, wished on every fallen star, prayed as every ship came into port that it would be that magical one carrying the mysterious Caraval performers. You want this more than I do. (pp.18-19)
She does, to be sure. But Scarlett is deeply afraid of her father. She's afraid of what he would do, to her and to Tella too, if she leaves the conquered island of Trisda. You see, she's tried to, in the past. She's tried, and failed, and a good man died at her hateful father's hands because of the mistake she made. She's simply not willing to make another, especially because attending Caraval for the week it takes to complete would mean missing the wedding ceremony her father has gone out of his way to arrange. It might be to a man Scarlett has not yet met, and he might also be a monster, but at least she and her sister will be out of harm's way after her big day.
So it's a no. A no Tella disregards entirely. She has her own suitor, a sultry sailor name Julian, subdue Scarlett and spirit her off to la Isla de los Sueños—"the island of dreams" (p.46) where Caraval is poised to take place. When she comes to a couple of days later, Scarlett wants nothing more than to turn back to Trisda, but she can't countenance leaving her sister, and Tella has already traded in her ticket. To wit, to find her, Scarlett—and Julian as her fake fiance—have no choice but to follow in her footsteps. Thus the game begins!