In Stephanie Garber's debut novel, Scarlett Dragna and her younger sister Donatella (called Tella for short) have grown up wealthy and privileged on their father's estate on the island of Trisda. Now Scarlett is engaged to a count as part of an arranged marriage. Although she has never met her betrothed, he appears to be absolutely charming from the letters he has sent her. He is even willing to let Tella move in with him after he marries Scarlett. The Dragna sisters have never left Trisda in their entire lives, and they view this marriage as their chance to finally get away from their controlling father.
There is one thing that worries Scarlett, however. Since she was a little girl, Scarlett would listen to her Nana tell stories about a wondrous event called Caraval. Several years ago, a mysterious man called Legend began the annual tradition of traveling with a team of performers to bring this five-day event to people all over the Meridian Empire. Legend is rumored to have magic powers and his performances are considered to be more stunning than any other circus or carnival.
For the past seven years, Scarlett has been writing letters to Legend, asking if he would bring Caraval to the island of Trisda this year. She never received any responses until a few days ago, when a letter from Legend arrived, inviting her to the Isla de Los Sueños for this year's Caraval. Although Scarlett is glad that Legend has finally answered her, she is afraid that she won't be able to make it, since her wedding is just one week away. She knows her father has been planning this for a long time and is terrified of what will happen if she disappoints him. Tella, however, is determined to go and manages to get herself and Scarlett off of Trisda with the help of a sailor named Julian.
Once Scarlett reaches her destination, she realizes that her sister Tella has been kidnapped as part of this year's Caraval. Players will be required to find clues that will lead them to her so they can win this year's prize. Now Scarlett must find her sister in time to leave Legend's mysterious island and get home in time to marry the count or face her father's wrath.
Followed by Legendary and then Finale came out in 2019 to complete the trilogy.
This book provides examples of the following:
- Abusive Parents: Governor Dragna fits this trope to a T. Whenever one of his daughters steps out of line, he physically hurts the other one. He even punches Tella in the face until she bleeds after finding both girls hiding in the cellar with Julian.
- Alternative Calendar: Years are counted from the beginning of Empress Elantine's reign. In one of her letters to Legend, Scarlett writes that her sister's birthday is on the 13th day of the Growing Season.
- Arranged Marriage: Scarlett is engaged to a count whom she has never met. Her father arranged the marriage hoping it would finally bring him the respect he feels has been denied to him.
- Ax-Crazy: When we finally meet Legend at the last act of the novel, it becomes immediately clear that he's completely mad and falls into several bouts of Evil Laughter with little provoking. This isn't the real Legend, but it's implied the real one is still has one or two loose screws.
- Becoming the Mask: Julian was only meant to pretend to be Scarlett's fiancé to get her into the game but ends up falling in love with her for real.
- Caught in the Rain: While Julian and Scarlett are running away from Governor Dragna, a storm breaks out on the island forcing them to take cover. This leads to a make-out session.
- Circus of Fear: The game of Caraval takes place at night, giving it a bit of a spooky, mysterious atmosphere. Participants can never really be sure whom to trust, or whether anything that happens is real or an illusion. Some people have even gone mad or died while playing the game.
- Colour-Coded Emotions: For Scarlett, strong emotions are often accompanied by a burst of many different colors.
- Disney Death: Scarlett watches Tella and Julian die on the last day of Caraval, but they are both brought back to life at the very end. It is explained that the performers in Caraval can't die. They always come back to life after the game is over. Tella is just a player so she shouldn't have been brought back but Scarlett was able to use The Power of Love to wish her back to life.
- Dreaming the Truth - In order to purchase a new dress, Scarlett must give up a day of her life. While she is temporarily dead, she has a dream that sheds some light on what happened between Legend and her grandmother. She also finds out a bit more about the woman who died after participating in Caraval a few years ago. Not played completely straight, as some of the information Scarlett receives isn't completely accurate.
- Driven to Suicide: Said to be the fate of Rosa, the woman who died at the Caraval performance years before the events of the main plot. Tella befalls the same fate at the last act of the book. Except it's a Disney Death.
- Easily Forgiven: Donatella and Scarlett seem awfully forgiving towards their mother, Paloma, considering that she abandoned them both for ten years, leaving them alone with their abusive father, and never came back because she got herself sealed in the Deck of Destiny. Then when Tella manages to free her by freeing the entire deck of Fates, Paloma is comatose for weeks until she wakes up and promptly abandons her daughters again to go confront the Fallen Star, who kills her. It's especially insulting when Scarlett, who was always the more critical of Paloma, goes back in time and meets Paloma when she was first pregnant with Scarlett and assures her she'll be a "great" mother who "did her best", when it seems more like Paloma is just a selfish Jerkass who'll betray anyone to save her own neck.
- Evil Wears Black: Dante has black hair and always dresses in black. Scarlett suspects he may be a villain, although one can never be sure what's what in Caraval.
- Turns out she was right. Dante is the real Legend.
- Fake Relationship: Scarlett was originally supposed to go to Caraval with her fiance, but ended up being taken there by the Julian the sailor. Julian lies about being her fiance in order to gain entry on the first day. They end up spending the whole five days pretending to be an engaged couple.
- Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Throughout the book, Scarlett is always cautious and nervous about doing anything reckless, while her younger sister Tella is more impulsive. This causes Scarlett to worry that her sister will end up hurting herself or getting into a lot of trouble.
- Gaslighting: Poor Scarlett is manipulated by pretty much every single character she comes across, including her beloved little sister.
- Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Scarlett remembers how her grandmother would always dress in purple, though she herself hates that color because she associates it with her abusive father.
- Hypocrite: In Legendary, the sequel, Tella plays the next Caraval game and becomes indignant that Scarlett seems to be keeping secrets from her. Bit rich considering she basically tricked her sister into playing the first one and let Scarlett believe she was dead for a short time.
- Identical Grandson: Or granddaughter in this case. Tella is described as having a round face with honey-blonde hair. This is exactly how their grandmother is said to have looked when she was young.
- Informed Attribute: In Legendary, the text claims that Tella is clever. However, she needs other people to point her in the right direction when she plays the game, acts on pure impulse only for it to bite her in the butt later, and generally never does anything remotely clever.
- Instant Sedation: When Scarlett meets Julian and Tella on the beach at night, she is reluctant to sneak away to Caraval. Julian holds a cloth over her face causing her to lose consciousness in seconds.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: According to legend, Legend has played the part of the villain in Caraval long enough that he has actually become an awful villain for real.
- Knight Templar Parent: Governor Dragna will do anything to keep his daughters from leaving the estate. He once drowned a sailor who tried to help Tella and Scarlett leave Trisda a few years before the events of the book.
- Last Words: Tella turns toward Scarlett and says she loves her and blows her a kiss before jumping off Legend's balcony.
- Luke, I Am Your Father: It turns out that Scarlett is the Fallen Star's daughter, not Marcello Dragma's.
- Made of Magic: The Isla de Los Sueños is an ordinary island during the day, but is transformed into the magnificent, dream-like Caraval grounds at night using copious amounts of magic.
- Make a Wish: Caraval is a game where the players have to find clues that will help them figure out where Tella is being kept. The first one to find her wins the prize, which is the ability to make one wish.
- Man of Wealth and Taste: Governor Dragna is described as impeccably dressed in the latest fashions. Legend is also said to fit this trope.
- The Millstone: Tella's extremely headstrong and impulsive nature means she jumps into things without thinking them through, making rash decisions and generally making everything worse.
- Missing Mom: Scarlett and Tella's mother, Paloma, just walked out on them one day for seemingly no reason. Her mother's disappearance is still upsetting to Scarlett seven years later. According to her, this is when her father's cruelty towards her and her sister began.
- Parasol of Prettiness: After arriving at Caraval, Scarlett looks around and sees young women in frilly dresses walking around with parasols.
- Pimped-Out Dress: After arriving on Isla de Los Sueños, Scarlett finds a magical shape-shifting dress with a corset, ribbons, and lots of elegant lace. This dress is also magic and can change it's apperance to best fit the setting and Scarlett's current mood.
- Pinball Protagonist: Early in the novel, Scarlett is pushed around by various characters in part of their machinations. Part of her Character Development is her making her own decisions.
- Power-Up Food: Scarlett buys some special cider that has the effect of making everything black-and-white, except for things that are important to solving the game. This helps her find the next clue.
- Rebellious Princess: Technically not princesses since their father isn't a king, but Scarlett and Tella disobey him by sneaking away from home to go see Caraval. Later on, Scarlett refuses to marry the man her father has chosen for her.
- The Reveal:
- Julian is Legend's brother.
- Tella is working with Legend to get both her and Scarlett away from her father and much of the novel is all a Batman Gambit on their parts. To this extent, most of what happens is really all just a game.
- In the second book, we learn that Legend is Dante and that Paloma has been alive all this time but is trapped in the Deck of Destiny with the rest of the Fates.
- Scarlett is the Fallen Star's daughter, making her a demigod.
- Scars are Forever: While performers in the Caraval can't die, they do retain scars they receive during the games. Julian gets a nasty one on his face when he tries to protect Scarlett from Count Dragna.
- Scavenger Hunt: Those participating in the game of Caraval receive notes that contain clues to help them find Tella and win the prize.
- Secret Underground Passage: Scarlett finds some of these while looking for clues. At least some of the hotel rooms are connected to this network of secret tunnels.
- Sheltered Aristocrat: Scarlett and her sister are the daughters of one of the richest men on the island. Before going to Caraval, they had never left Trisda in their entire lives and had strict rules imposed on them by their father.
- Signature Headgear: The one thing that is associated with the incredibly secretive Legend is his top hat.
- Strict Parents Make Sneaky Kids: After spending their entire lives on their father's estate, Scarlett and Tella decide to sneak off to Caraval. They must be extremely careful to hide their tickets and keep Governor Dragna from finding out their plans, or they will face dire consequences.
- Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Paloma/Paradise is fairly unceremoniously killed off by the Fallen Star, while a paralyzed Tella is Forced to Watch.
- Will They or Won't They?: Julian and Scarlett pretend to be a couple during their entire stay at Caraval. At first, Scarlett doesn't want to get too involved with him because she will soon be married to the count. But as she becomes more reluctant about her impending marriage, she begins to let herself fall for Julian.