Caraval by Stephanie Garber
I really dig books that include cool maps of the fantasy worlds where their action takes place. This unique, visionary, Venice-like city of Caraval is spectacular!
Remember the movie “The Game” starring Michael Douglas? If not, rent it ASAP, it's fantastic. Caraval captures a small feeling of the “what's real and what's part of the game” magic of that film. However this story is set in a fantasy-like version of Venice and features a tough, determined, yet vulnerable heroine named Scarlett Dragna.

Scarlett’s dangerous and thrilling adventure begins when she and her sister Donatella finally receive a much-coveted invitation to the infamous Caraval event. It’s an exclusive party thrown by the elusive game master known only as Legend. Each year, invitees participate in an elaborate, complex competition where the players must solve a mystery and the first to do so wins a fabulous prize from Legend. This year, the “game” turns out to be a race against time to search the fabulous Caraval city in order to save Donatella’s life. Of course Scarlett is determined to rescue her sister, no matter the physical and mental toll it takes out of her. There are many dangers in the game though...such as who is true and who is lying; is her love interest Julian really with her or is he playing her for his advantage; is the unpredictable Legend actually a part of the game; and most importantly will Donatella truly die if Scarlett can't unravel the clues and find her before the bell tolls on the last night of Caraval?

The story is fast-paced, exciting, exquisitely described, and full of nice plot twists. As Scarlett meets players and workers in the game, we readers really feel her difficulties and muddled perceptions as she attempts to work out what's real and what's fantasy. Scarlett is a great lead character, full of fire and energy--yet flawed and unsure at times. She has a powerful love interest with the shady Julian, who is the main focus of the whole “is this life or the game” issue that drives the book. Scarlett and Julian do share some passionate embraces and romantic kisses, but nothing further.

One difficult part of the book is Scarlett and her sister’s shared intense fear of their abusive father. He tightly controls their lives and is the main reason they long to escape to the fantasy realm of Caraval. And he is physically violent towards both of them as punishment, which is a bit tough to read at times. But this heartbreaking reality does go a long way in defining Scarlett's strong inner-spirit and her intense love for Donatella.

I recommend Caraval for female readers of high school age and older due to slightly mature content and since Scarlett appears to be somewhere in the 17-20 range. The novel probably defines her age but I cannot recall at this time. The wonderfully-written and immersive atmosphere of this book makes me think of the Baz Luhrmann films Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby. Add in the mystery of the game, danger on every corner, and a great character in Scarlett Dragna and you have a beautifully written novel. Except I will say that the plot gets a little “thick” in the end when the writer brings a few too many things back and tries to wrap all the twists up with slightly too much cleverness, but it mostly works if you just focus on the ambience, mystery and characters.

And at the very conclusion of the novel there is, of course, a stylish hint at a sequel...which is cool. Also I believe this book is already optioned for a movie which should be phenomenal. Step into the mystery, experience the fantasy, play the game, if you’s Caraval!

Happy Reading!