Bite-Sized Book Reviews: “Legendary”

In many ways, writing the second book in a series is trickier than writing the first. The author faces the challenge of having to maintain the elements that made the first book a success, while also having to amp up the stakes (and yet avoid veering into territory that isn’t cohesive with book 1).

I read Caraval, the first book in Stephanie Garber’s series of the same name, with an overall sense of satisfaction. (Find my review here.) The pacing was good, the world intriguing, and I was curious to see what happened next. Lucky for me, I already had an Advanced Readers Copy of sequel Legendary on hand for review.

Legendary continues the story of the Dragna sisters, Scarlett and Tella. Now traveling with the players who put on Caraval–an immersive, magical game that is half-carnival, half-scavenger hunt–the sisters are enjoying the freedom won from their oppressive father in book 1. But when they are sucked into a second round of Caraval, lead character Tella learns that this time, it’s no mere game. And gaining her mother’s freedom may mean unleashing an ancient evil on the world.

Here’s what I liked: Legendary tackled the second book challenge well. Where Caraval was centered on the achievement of personal happiness for Scarlett and Tella, book 2 shows Tella’s struggle to balance her own desires (a reunion with her missing mother) with the good of the Meridian Empire. The ongoing mystery of the mother’s disappearance is a nice continuation of a book 1 plot line, and Garber does a deft job of intensifying that thread’s stakes, mirroring the sisters’ journey as they leave their secluded island and venture into the wider world.

Garber also expands the magical world of the first book, adding new flourishes of imagination and enchantment. The expansion of the world’s political, religious, and historical context also adds breadth and depth, as the structure of the Meridian Empire is fleshed out and the reader encounters the darker forces that once ruled the world. The injection of an ominous, tarot card-type system of fortune-telling contributed intriguing texture. And as in the first book, beautiful imagery and whimsical magic make for a visually vivid read. The pacing was excellent again, with the story unfolding at a speed that had me compulsively reading.

But for me, this installment in the series had a few less satisfactory elements. Several plot devices were reused (faux engagements, a game of Caraval, and magical aid that comes at the cost of temporary sleep/death.) In Caraval, Garber’s writing occasionally trended a bit heavy, both in emotional explication and in purple-ish prose. Yet, these were relatively minor blips. In Legendary, however, this “over-writing” crops up more obviously, with some phrases even eliciting a wince.

Additionally, character inconsistencies pop up in both Tella and Scarlett. And whereas the first book–written from Scarlett’s point of view–convincingly communicated her steadfastness, caution, and character arc, the second book (from Tella’s perspective) stumbled a bit. Attempts to convey Tella’s spontaneity, courage, and adventurousness sometimes came across as flightiness, selfishness, and folly. Granted, a character arc eventually rounded out Tella with a grand gesture of selflessness. But some of her actions–and the rationale driving them–tempted a face-palm.

On the whole, Legendary nicely amplifies the plot, world, and stakes of Caraval, propelling the story to the next level. With a third book being clearly forecasted and my curiosity still piqued, I’ll likely reach for volume 3. But another careful round of editing and an analytical eye to character motivations might have created an even more immersive reading experience.

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*I received an Advanced Readers Copy of Legendary for the purposes of this review.

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