The Caraval Trilogy by Stephanie Garber: An Author's Journey from Good to Great
Updated: Mar 18, 2023
GENRE: YA Fantasy
LENGTH: 1,315 pages (3 books combined length)
WARNING: This blog is a review of the entire trilogy so it includes heavy SPOILERS for all books. Proceed at your own risk!
Two sisters (Scarlett and Tella) escape from their abusive father and sail to a distant island. There they partake in the magical game known as Caraval in which they must solve clues to earn a stellar prize (one wish). The object of the first game? Find Tella!
Scarlett is very much the responsible elder sister while Tella is the more free spirited younger sibling. Both girls were main characters with Scarlett being the protagonist of the first book, Tella of the second, and both girls having POV chapters in the third book. Scarlett is likeable enough but doesn’t have the proper charisma to carry her own book. She was really aided by her love interest, Julian. When he was on the page I found myself a lot more engaged in the reading experience. When he was gone I wondered when he was going to return. Tella, on the other hand, was super clever and feisty. We only get a small taste of her in the first book but she’s undeniably main character material. She also had superior chemistry and compatibility with her love interest, Dante. There was plenty of deception and angst in their relationship just like there was in Scarlett and Julian’s, but Tella and Dante's playing field was more even.
Something that was sorely lacking in these novels was more scenes of Scarlett and Tella together. They have an undying, unconditional love for each other and are always trying to protect the other. Yet there are more scenes of one fretting over or talking about the other than there are of them actually interacting. The books were more focused on the sisters’ individual romances than they were on their sisterhood. I know most readers will probably prefer it this way as romance is what sells, but there was room for more balance.
Caraval was Stephanie Garber’s debut novel and with each successive novel in this trilogy both her writing and the plots are continuously improving. It’s a rare scenario when I rate the sequels higher than the first book in a series but this was one of those cases.
I had two main problems with the first book. The first I already mentioned; Scarlett is too boring. The second problem I had was the ending in which it is revealed that Caraval is, indeed, just a game. Tella was never in any danger and the characters outside of the sisters were actually Caraval actors. This was a real letdown for me because, to me at least, it read like Garber wanted the reader to believe that the whole “remember it’s only a game” was to mislead. I genuinely believed the danger was real and so the ending was very lukewarm.
The second book (Legendary) had a sort of rehashed plot in that it was another Caraval game. I do think the setup was weak. It made no sense for there to be another Caraval so soon after the first one based on what had been previously established about the tradition. The reasoning was very much just for plot convenience purposes. If you look past that, however, there are marked improvements over the first novel. For one, as I mentioned above, Tella has a far better personality for a main character. Putting her in the spotlight was the right choice. The second thing this book did right was putting the games in a new setting. This time the capital of this world is Tella’s playground and it was so much fun getting to explore the city of Valenda. Also, the consequences in this game are actually real. The novel concludes with the Fates, which includes magical immortal beings, objects, and places, being unleashed upon the world to wreak havoc. It's the perfect set up for a trilogy's conclusion.
The third book (Finale) was the best book of the trilogy. It features a new plot set around the Fates. As a fantasy writer I’m a geek for world building so I was super excited to get to know more about the Fates. Much to my joy we got to meet a good number of Fated Immortals, visited Fated Places (including the Immortal Library where I could have spent an eternity), and featured Fated Objects (which played a key role in the plot). I was surprised by the role certain Fated immortals played within the plot. They had a lot more nuance than I was expecting. My only real complaint is with Jacks, one of the Fated Immortals. He was trapped in a magical deck of cards alongside the other Fates but he managed to escape and this was never properly explained. The oversight doesn’t ruin the story for me by any means, but as a fantasy writer myself it’s the sort of thing that I notice. This novel also had the finest balance of sisterhood, romance, and plot of the entire trilogy. The only real weak point was the ending in which Scarlett became the empress. This came largely out of left field. There should have been more lead up and explanation to her coronation.
Something final worthy of note is these books feature a mixed media element. This largely appears in the form of letters and Caraval clues that look on page as they do to the characters. This style (as well as the sisterhood themes) reminded me of another YA fantasy, Hotel Magnifique (though these books came out before that one, I just read that book first). When used right these mixed media elements can really help with immersion. Being lost in the Caraval games is the whole point of the books and the mixed media makes you feel like you're a player, too. They also continue throughout the entire trilogy and I appreciate the consistency.
I read this trilogy after reading the companion books (the Once Upon a Broken Heart series). I view the Once Upon a Broken Heart books as essentially flawless YA fantasy. The Caraval trilogy reads like a stepping stone to it. I already said it above, but Garber shows marked improvement with each and every book she writes. Her first book was a good debut but I think she became a princess of her genre around the time of the trilogy's conclusion (and a queen with the companion books). If you like your fantasy books with sharp, glittery magic and a heavy dose of romance then this is a pretty solid series with an epic conclusion.