Budding authors don't often dare to dream of having their debut novel catch the imagination of readers around the globe, never mind watching it cross over from a teen hit to an almost cultish adult following. But that dream came true for Stephanie Garber with last year's spellbinding "Caraval."
The sinister and stunning world of Caraval is back in the much anticipated sequel "Legendary."
Set in a fantasyland of resplendent castles and conquered isles, magical Fates and romantic mischief, "Caraval" revolves around two sisters, Scarlett and Donatella, who escape an embittered, evil father to pursue their dreams of love and happiness. A world-wise young sailor spirits the two beauties away, delivering them to the kingdom's mysterious carnival, where players follow cryptic clues into perilous situations in hopes of winning the game.
The master of all this intrigue is Legend, who guides his players' destinies with a cruel and selfish hand. The tale quickly turns dark with the girls' lives on the line as they learn, at great cost, whom they can and cannot trust.
"Legendary" picks up the adventure seamlessly, but with a plotting sidestep that keeps the story fresh. While the first book concentrates on the older sister, Scarlett, the sequel follows the impetuous Donatella as she embarks on a secret mission driven by an enchanted deck of cards, masked balls, cult religions, potent curses and childhood memories of a mother long gone.
The plot sounds silly and fairy-tale trite, yet through evocative writing and a wild imagination, Garber creates a fantastic world reminiscent of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. It has dimension and depth, with the floor always seeming to move out from under the characters just as they gain a foothold.
In surprisingly clean, age-appropriate storytelling, the girls flirt with love and the suggestion of sex while surrounded by the godlike muscled and bronzed specimens of this magical world. Yet each male character they encounter has a sinister side, and Garber dangles their dark secrets — including the true identity of the charismatic but ruthless Legend — just enough to keep us speculating.
"Legendary" is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a kind of dark Disneyland, where the stakes are high, sacrifices are demanded and nothing is quite as it seems.
While "Caraval" hit the bookshelves quietly at the start of last year, it became a publishing sensation, gaining momentum in 30 countries, major movie rights and an enviable fandom. As the last pages were turned, readers were already asking, "What's next?"
Here's your answer. And while "Legendary" advances a few of the tantalizing twists that haunted the closing pages of "Caraval," this installment ends with the same lack of resolution, one that promises a third act. It's rather addictive. Maybe even legendary.
Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.