When a chance to escape presents itself, Tella bribes a handsome sailor named Julian to help her kidnap Scarlett and whisk them both away to the mysterious isle of the mage known only as Legend. Legend's annual week-long carnival/competition, Caraval, offers a select few participants the opportunity to experience magic, wonder, mystery, and a bit of danger, all in the pursuit of a coveted grand prize: a wish. All the reluctant Scarlett cares about is getting back home in time for her arranged marriage to a nameless count, but when Tella disappears and becomes the goal of this year's game, all Scarlett's carefully-laid plans start to fall apart.
This was a quick read, full of whimsy and magic, but it was much darker than I had anticipated. The mystery of Caraval is a sinister one, its ringleader Legend more a malevolent entity than a charming illusionist. Scarlett's constant fear of discovery and her blind dedication to her mysterious fiance grows tiresome, but she does eventually shed it and find her courage. The gradual development of her relationship with Julian was really well done, full of humorous banter and just the right speed of enemies-to-lovers, though the romance is extremely PG. Tella was just flat-out obnoxious. I'm hoping her character gets developed in the next book.
Garber's prose is accessible, but far from bland, filled with luxurious details of the magic inside Caraval. Her descriptions pull you into the enchantment surrounding Julian and Scarlett's adventure, but always with the hint of something darker, as though danger lurks around every corner. Bright dress shops and rose-covered carousels are juxtaposed against blood magic and underground tunnels that can drive you mad. At the end, themes of death and suicide take center stage. Abuse, of course, is a central theme throughout.
Like many of the "junk food books" I enjoy, this story reaches only skin-deep, but it is definitely a magical ride.