63 pages 2 hours read

Stephanie Garber


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide


Caraval by Stephanie Garber, originally published in 2017, is a young adult romantic fantasy set in a Spanish-inspired world that explores the boundaries between fantasy and reality through a magical, interactive theater experience called Caraval. In this novel, the world’s a stage (literally) where performances give way to larger truths. The bond between sisters is tested, but ultimately, true love triumphs over all obstacles. This novel may not be suitable for all audiences, as it contains violence, death, physical abuse, trauma, sexual innuendos, sex, nudity, threats of sexual violence, suicide, homicide, disassociation from reality, drowning, blood, deceased relatives, absent parental figures, smuggling, alcohol, and fictional drug use. This study guide refers to the paperback edition published by Flatiron Books.

Plot Summary

As a child, Scarlett Dragna dreams of attending Caraval, a magical performance led by Master Legend. Her Nana Anna always told her and her younger sister, Tella (Donatella), stories of the enchanting world of Caraval. However, when Scarlett’s mother, Paloma, leaves her and Tella alone with their father, Governor Marcello Dragna, Scarlett’s whole life changes. Her father becomes manipulative and abusive. He sees his daughters only as objects in his political endeavors. Since Governor Dragna rules a conquered isle, Trisda, he seeks to expand his power by gaining legitimacy in the eyes of other rulers. No amount of trade or production has granted him equality with other leaders, so he sets his sights on legitimacy through diplomacy. He plans to marry his eldest daughter, Scarlett, to Count Nicolas d’Arcy. Scarlett does not know the identity of her fiancé, but he writes her wonderful letters and promises to take her and her sister away from their abusive father.

Tella has another plan in mind. She writes to Master Legend with her own idea for a game to help her older sister, who is so burdened by responsibility and trauma, discover that there’s more to life than safety and that some things are worth the risk.

When Scarlett receives a reply from Master Legend after seven years of unsuccessfully writing to him, she is excited but knows she cannot attend, since she’s getting married soon. She has no idea Tella has concocted this whole situation and will not find out until Caraval ends that it was all an elaborate ruse. Scarlett rushes to find Tella and share the news of Master Legend’s reply, but when she stumbles on her sister, she is with a boy, Julian, in the cellar. Tella and Julian have planned to lure Scarlett out, take her to the isle, and stage a kidnapping so Governor Dragna doesn’t get angry with them. Scarlett just wants to find Tella and leave at first. Then, she decides to stay for a day, which turns into staying for the whole game.

Caraval offers invited guests two options: to participate or watch. If they participate, they must follow a series of five clues to find Tella, who Master Legend has kidnapped. Whoever finds Tella first will be granted a wish. Wishes are a rare kind of magic that can make any dream come true if the wisher “wants something more than anything, and they can find a bit of magic to help them along” (41), and as such, it is a coveted prize.

Scarlett follows a series of five clues that lead her to her sister. The game isn’t entirely logical but rather structured around symbols and signs as Scarlett interprets them. Many of the actors in the game help and challenge her along the way.

The participants receive the first clue when they enter the game; it leads them to their hotel, La Serpiente de Cristal, where they find an envelope with a message about how Legend has kidnapped Tella, the other clues they must follow to find her, and a key to her room. The second clue is in Tella’s room: a picture card of a castle, Castillo Maldito. The third clue costs Scarlett the painful truth about her feelings for Julian in exchange for the fortune-teller’s advice to “Follow the boy with a heart made of black” (257). The fourth clue leads Scarlett to drink a magical cider that turns her vision black-and-white, except for the clues she truly needs to see. The fifth and final clue “requires a leap of faith” quite literally when she has to jump through a dark hole that eventually leads to Tella’s room (257). Along the way, Scarlett’s father and her fiancé track her down and chase her throughout the game. Scarlett makes friends who help her and enemies who challenge her as she tries to find her sister.

The way Scarlett moves through the clues is more dreamlike and fantastical than methodical and logical. Ultimately, after falling in love with Julian and witnessing his death, she finds her way to Tella’s room in a high tower among the stars. She learns Tella has gotten engaged to Lord Daniel DeEngl, who is truly the actor, Casper, playing Legend. Scarlett believes the game is real and thinks Tella is in trouble, since Legend is evil. After a series of dramatic events in which Scarlett is pushed to the edge of the balcony, tied up, and ultimately stands up to her father, Tella kills herself.

However, Scarlett’s love for Tella allows her to make a wish, which no one else (not even Legend), can give her, and that wish brings her sister back to life, just like Tella planned. Tella explains her plan to save Scarlett and apologizes for all the heartache Scarlett endured on her journey. All of Legend’s performers were protected by his magic. If they died during the game, they would come back to life after the fact. However, Tella was not protected by this magic, since she’s not a performer. She knew Scarlett’s love was enough to bring her back to life. She convinces Scarlett to attend the exclusive afterparty with the actors so Scarlett can have closure with Julian.

At the afterparty, Scarlett sees Julian as his true self, not as an actor. Though a few things have changed, the scars he endured from her father during the game and his love for Scarlett remain the same. Scarlett, who has changed dramatically since the beginning of the novel, allows herself to follow her heart and chase what she desires, despite the risks. She gives Julian another chance despite him concealing that he was an actor and lying throughout the game.

While Scarlett enjoys a kiss with Julian to cement their relationship outside the scope of the game, Tella flits from partner to partner on the dance floor, one of which disappears and leaves a note with a heavy coin in her pocket. Tella owes the writer, only signed as “A friend,” a debt, and the writer intends to collect soon, setting up the sequel told from Tella’s point of view, Legendary.