The grass is always greener, goes the saying. It describes how people are never satisfied with their circumstances and seemingly always attempting and working to escape them, to something better, a place where the grass is just a bit greener. For those with insatiable greed, sometimes they desire much greener grass.
In Stephanie Garber’s new young adult fantasy novel, Caraval, we are introduced to two sisters, Scarlett (our heroine) and Donatella (Tella) Dragna who are condemned to life with an abusive and contemptible father, the notorious Governor Dragna. Growing up they’ve always heard the stories of the game of Caraval. A game located on a faraway isle, and for those daring enough to play, a chance to win valuable and priceless reward. Run by the mysterious Master Legend, Scarlett has written to him thoughout her childhood, begging him to invite her to and her sister to play or bring the Caraval to her land of Trisda. When her letters ultimately go unanswered, Scarlett resigns herself to an arranged marriage to a Count, a man she has never met, believing the marriage is the escape her and Tella have been waiting for. And just when she’s lost all hope, a correspondence arrives from Master Legend himself, along with two tickets to attend and play Caraval.
Tella distrusts her father’s motives and with the help of a brigand, a sailor named Julian, she attempts to persuade Scarlett that they must flee and journey to Caraval for their salvation. But Scarlett’s fear of her father is too great and thus she refuses to agree to her sister’s harebrained scheme. However as you will see should you choose to play (I mean read), Tella and Julian force Scarlett’s hand to leave Trisda and journey to the isle to play the game of Caraval.
Here’s the thing about Caraval, you are instructed from the beginning that nothing, nothing should be taken as true. In fact, trust no one. (Aside: How many times in our lives, have we’ve been told that of others? End Aside). However, it becomes readily apparent that such a warning isn’t just meant for Scarlett, Ms. Garber seems to be warning the reader as well. Trust nothing in this book. Nothing is at is appears. It is all a game, and in five days time (or by the end of the book), all will be set to rights.
I confess, never has a industry categorized “young adult” fantasy novel used such a gimmick to great advantage. Throughout the story the reader is forced to question the characters’ motives and even Scarlett’s perception of her reality. It is often the case that when faced with an unreliable narrator it takes a storyteller of great skill to allow such narrators to garner empathy. But such is the case with Scarlett. I often found myself just as frustrated and confounded with the clues as she was. She must locate her sister, because Tella has disappeared (yeah there’s that conundrum too). With nothing but a brigand for an ally she must circumnavigate this crazy world where you can never be certain of any person’s motives or even your own eyes.
Many of the story’s themes are prima facie evident early on: trust should be earned, look not just a tree but too the forest, trust your heart, your eyes will deceive you, you lie to yourself everyday, how much would you sacrifice for those that you love, and finally…question everything.
Heady stuff for a young adult novel, but as I’ve said before on this blog, I have considerable issue with the designation of these novels as “young adult”-because more often than not these stories deal expertly with “adult” issues. That being said, since the book is marketed and targeted for teenage readers Ms. Garber should be applauded for her attempts to make teens think about the consequences of their decisions and to question everything. A top hat doth not a gentlemen make. Caraval teaches us that finery should not be equated with altruism immediately. Master Legend’s motives are never apparent until the very end (although arguably…maybe not). And Scarlett’s journey leaves the reader deeply unsettled-yet that’s not at all a negative consequence. Ms. Garber easily brings the reader into Caraval, but the question remains, is her game really over?