Shortly after I moved to the DC area I joined the DC chapter of the Forever Young Adult book club (DC FYA for short)(I may have mentioned this fact before?). The girls from book club have become good friends, and they are really sweet about the fact that I often show up without having read the book (or when I skip a meeting, like yesterday! Eek!). I trust them for recommendations. Melissa-from-book-club insisted that I would like Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, and I knew she was probably right. I wasn’t in the mood to read it at the time, so I sat on the recommendation for a few months. Then on my flight home from France I saw it on my Kindle app and thought, “Yeah, I’ll try that.” Seven hours of travel later, I was almost home and exhausted, but with that happy I-just-finished-a-fun-book feeling.
That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.
Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here—it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.
Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you'd expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.
Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a “Chosen One” with a temper, and his final year at a magical school. If that sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. Simon was originally introduced to readers through fan fiction about a fictional book within another of Rowell’s books (Fangirl), and it was meant to be a Harry Potter-esque story. If that last sentence didn’t make sense to you, it’s fine: You don’t need to have read anything previously to ‘get’ Simon’s story. It’ll feel familiar no matter what because it is a loving send-up of some of fantasy’s well-worn tropes.
As mentioned above, Simon is back at his magical boarding school for his final year. He expects life as normal (or as normal as his life gets): foiling his roommate Baz’s evil plots, proving that Baz is a vampire, and figuring out what the next threat to his life from the Big Bad in his world will be. Then Baz has to go and spoil it by not showing up (the nerve!). Life goes on, but Simon just can’t let Baz’s mysterious disappearance go. Add in ghosts, not-dealing with his girlfriend-who-probably-cheated-on-him-with-Baz, and magical deadspots of increasing size, and you have a recipe for angst and apocalypse.
So those are the bare bones of the plot. What’s the book like? It’s delightful and yet predictable. How does that work? Good points: it’s well-written, it’s funny, it’s meta, and it’s told from multiple perspectives, which adds a thin slice of mystery to some events which might otherwise be completely unsurprising. As I said, though, it’s not particularly surprising or groundbreaking, though now that I write that I don’t think I can name a young adult fantasy novel with gay boys and a happy-ish ending.* So maybe it IS groundbreaking?! Let me know in the comments if there are titles I’ve overlooked. When I say it’s predictable, I mean that I knew what was coming around every corner before it arrived, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t still enjoy it.
Things that I thought were particularly well done: characters with varying levels of self-awareness and intelligence (instead of a cast entirely made up of self-possessed/talented teens – it was a welcome change), LGBTQ love story (I don’t think that’s a spoiler – you can see it coming a mile away!), female characters of various ages and awesome, family foibles, and diversity (in fantasy!). Rowell is also very talented at writing banter and dialogue in general – you hear the different voices of the narrators loud and clear.
This is a parody of popular fantasy, so the magic is exceedingly silly, but the author did enough worldbuilding that it worked. At least, it did if you imagined Rowell sharing the joke with you. She didn’t take herself too seriously, and that light-hearted feel contrasted nicely with the world-ending stakes.
In all, Carry On is a fun and funny diverse read that’s perfect for turning off the real world for a bit and enjoying a trope-tastic magical alternative.
Recommended for: fans of Sarah Rees Brennan’s Lynburn Legacy series, Gina D’Amico’s Croak (and fantasy in general), and anyone who appreciates good dialogue and a sarcastic narrator.
*ETA: I've done a bit of looking and found several books (gayya.org has a lovely masterlist), and I've even read some of them, so I was clearly a little out of it while writing the review. A book I'm in the process of reading (The Rest of Us Just Live Here) fits the criteria, for goodness' sake! Sorry all. Still, send me your recommendations! I clearly need to read more (and more carefully).