Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
I’m very glad that no one asked me what I was reading when I was reading Carry On, because at first I was not sure I could describe it succinctly. How do you quickly sum up a book that is a fictional story based on fanfiction written by a character in another fictional story, with the series inspiring the fanfiction itself fictional. That is, in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Carry On is Cath’s epic Simon Snow fanfic, her “parallel telling” and Simon/Baz ship that she then finishes differently from Gemma T. Leslie’s version of the story! In Cath’s universe, Simon Snow is the equivalent of Harry Potter. As Rowell herself has said, however, this version of Carry On is not Cath’s. It’s Rowell writing Simon Snow, rather than Rowell writing Cath writing Simon Snow, because Simon Snow would not leave her alone. I find that very interesting.
About two thirds of the way through the book, however, I figured out how to describe this book: it’s what The Magicians should have been, in my opinion. And clearly someone on the marketing team was on this wavelength, because they got Lev Grossman to blurb it!
Like The Magicians, Carry On is a postmodern look at children’s and young adult fantasy stories. Rowell takes the familiar tropes of Chosen Ones, prophecies, magical schools hidden within the mundane world, etc., and plays with them. Simon Snow is the “worst Chosen One” there could ever be; his friend Penelope is like an even-smarter, even more competent Hermione; Baz is Draco Malfoy if Draco were a dragon and gay and rooming with Harry. The Mage, who is not just Dumbledore but also Gandalf and all sorts of “wise mentor” figures. Like Quentin, Simon Snow discovers that being let into the secret of the magical community does not mean being accepted by that community, nor does magic prove particularly … well, magical.
I feel like The Magicians gets sidetracked, however, is seduced by its own fascination with deconstructing these fantasy tropes. In contrast, Carry On stays the course. It’s as if Rowell asked, “What if Harry Potter acknowledged that Harry is generally incompetent and that he is, in some way, responsible for Voldemort?” (I’m not saying Harry is responsible for Voldemort; I am saying he’s generally incompetent.) This book is clever, and it is aware of its cleverness, but that cleverness never gets in the way of telling a good story. And so we wind up in this situation where, on the one hand, Rowell is playing with the tropes of young adult fantasy, but on the other hand, she is also using them straight in many cases—much like Delany in my recent read of Tales of Nevèrÿon, albeit with less semiotic subtext.
There are two ways any author can endear a story to me: characters and writing style. Rowell nails both.
Simon is a dolt, but Penelope, Agatha, and Baz are all really fascinating. In particular, I loathed Agatha—and I felt a little bad for this. Because of the way Rowell tells the story from multiple perspectives, we get inside Agatha’s head, so we learn why she is so distant from Simon, why she breaks up with him, what her worries are. Towards the end of the book, I admit, too, that I started rooting for Agatha and her desire to escape this crazy World of Mages. Nevertheless, I still can’t like her. And I like that I can’t like her; I love it when authors give me unlikable characters whom I nevertheless find interesting and sympathetic.
Similarly, Baz is a delightful antihero. It’s not just his sarcastic voice, the way he is so clearly pissed off with himself for falling in love with someone he has declared his sworn enemy. Again, Rowell is using some very stock, very tired tropes here, but she breathes fresh life into them with the way she writes these characters. Baz is a dynamic character; his arc is long and broad, from accepting that there is an alternative to fighting Simon all the way to becoming accustomed to the idea that they might get a happy ending—or at least something that doesn’t end in death.
All the while, Rowell’s writing just makes this story so much fun to read. Her humour and style creates exactly the kind of wordplay that I enjoy:
“But …” Agatha is staring at the two of them. “Baz is dark. He’s evil.”
“I thought you never believed that,” I say.
“I absolutely believed it,” she says. “You told us he was a vampire, Simon. Wait—” She turns to him, then back to me. “—did he just now admit that he is a vampire?”
I pull at the hair on my neck. I can tell I’m making an idiotic face. “I’m not sure it’s that simple….”
“That Baz is a vampire?”
“No, he’s definitely a vampire,” I say. “I guess it is that simple. But you can’t tell anyone, Agatha.”
“Simon, you’ve already told everyone. You’ve been telling everyone since we were third years.”
“Yeah, but nobody believed me.”
“I believed you.”
I was laughing out loud by the end of that page—it just reads like something from a comedy sketch. Rowell balances these moments of humour with moments of madness and darkness, too, whether it’s the Mage’s descent into murderous insanity or Simon’s melancholy over this being his last year at Watford, over each day being the last of those days that he will have here. In this way, Carry On taps into a very real, raw type of teenage emotion without going over the top.
That’s about all I have to say about Carry On. If you need more thoughts, head over to my friend Aubrey’s review. I’ve had this book ever since last Christmas; my dad bought it for me because I liked Fangirl so much. And, as with most books, it sat around my TBR pile until Aubrey’s review—and the need for something really, unsurprisingly fun to clean my palate after the disaster that was Trans Voices—galvanized me into picking it up. If you are a Harry Potter fan, or even like me, just someone who read the series once when you were younger, do yourself a favour and read this.