CARRY ON was my most anticipated book of 2015. I don’t really anticipate books. I usually read blindly, or devour a series in a short time span, mourn it for awhile, and move to the next thing. But as a recovering Harry Potter addict and a hardcore Rainbow Rowell fan, I was waiting for CARRY ON. The concept alone really excited me. It doesn’t even have a proper genre. It’s a standalone, but it isn’t. It’s fanfiction, but it’s not. It’s fantasy, but a delicious modern fantasy that borrows from the popular magickal British boarding school tropes yet is undoubtedly it’s own world.
Rowell’s 2013 release FANGIRL is about Cath, an introverted fanfiction author, and her life-changing first year of college. The book cut beautifully between scenes from Cath’s struggles and the world of Carry On, Simon, the Potter-esque book series that she is obsessed with and about which she writes a hugely popular serial fanfiction. We see excerpts from the author of Carry On, Simon, and longer pieces from Cath’s fanfiction, where she romantically ships* Baz and Simon, the assumed Harry and Draco of the Carry On, Simon world. FANGIRL is a joy- an accurate picture of figuring out your life living away from home for the first time with the bonus of some good discussions about being an author of fanfiction and whether or not fanfiction is “real” writing.
And then Rowell decided to finish Cath’s work and write the story of Simon and Baz in their last year of school. She shortened the name to CARRY ON, went with Cath’s world where Simon and Baz are in love, and all of the internet went nutso waiting to read it.
When I actually sat down to read the book, I was surprised by the tone. In FANGIRL, the series had unavoidable comparisons to the Harry Potter books, which seemed to be very much by design. Even though there were super strong parallels in CARRY ON, it felt completely different. The novel is split into four books and an epilogue, and the entire first book is spent setting the tone, giving us backstory, and explaining the way that magic works here. I found the world-building and scene-setting truly artful. First of all, Rowell is able to relay six years of relationships and adventures by slowly crumbling much of what her characters had worked to build during the nonexistent first books in the series. She references past exploits as casually as if you had already read about them, and in doing so, makes you feel that you have.
Additionally, the magickal world she creates is so interesting. The spells and ancient castles are seamlessly tucked alongside pop culture and cell phones, computers and Christmas viewings of Doctor Who, which is a very comforting way to read fantasy. Spellwork uses modern language, and the more popular a phrase is, the more powerful the spell will be, which is how we end up with Some Like It Hot to warm things and Into Thin Air to clean messes. I love the emphasis on the power of words, and how phrases become more powerful when they’re used widely.
“Down in winding tunnels of the Catacombs, I use every revealing spell I know, and every finding spell. (“Come out, come out, wherever you are! It’s show time! Scooby-Dooby-Doo, where are you!”) I call for Baz by his full name- that makes a spell harder to resist. Magic words are tricky. Sometimes to reveal something hidden, you have to use the language of the time it was stashed away. And sometimes an old phrase stops working when the rest of the world is sick of saying it.”
Rowell has literally made the manipulation of words become magic.
I am a hopeless romantic, so I was expecting the love story to sweep me off my feet, but the power of CARRY ON lay elsewhere for me. I connected strongly with some of the less likable characters- Penelope Bunce (Simon’s best friend) and Fiona Pitch (Baz’s kooky aunt) ended up being far and away favorites, despite Penelope feeling she’s superior to everyone and Fiona being obsessed with killing one of the main characters. All the characters, even secondary, were fleshed out and uniquely their own, with quirks and driving forces that kept them from blending into the background. This is another place where referenced past history allows you to feel like you you’ve spent years coming to know the characters, instead of just a single book.
Of course, when the kissing finally does happen, it is lovely kissing. This is not a book about the emotional turmoil that comes from entering a nontraditional relationship. (Are gay relationships even allowed to be classified as nontraditional anymore? I mean, really.) Baz and Simon don’t waste a lot of time struggling about whether suddenly making out with your roommate is right or wrong. They don’t even take time to discuss the moral issues of getting super amorous with your one sworn enemy. When they do finally fall into each other, they both seem enormously relieved. Then on with the mystery.
The climax of the story centers around Simon and his fight against the Insidious Humdrum. Things get very complicated, folding in on themselves, and the hero/villain lines get deliciously blurred. And yet. By the Epilogue, I realized that this story is only marginally about the resolution of the conflict. It’s only marginally about romantic love and marginally about magic. Rowell plays her strengths and ends up giving us a story about families- the ones you’re born with, the ones you lose, and the ones you make for yourself. CARRY ON is character driven, and lonely, and dark, with lots and lots and lots of flaws that make it feel very real.
If you like these books, you may like the HARRY POTTER series, but possibly not. I can’t really recommend any of Rowell’s other stories as a compliment to this one, as CARRY ON is unlike anything else she’s ever written, but ELEANOR & PARK has a similar dark streak and FANGIRL will give you more Baz and Simon.
Please follow me on Goodreads to see what else I’m reading. I’m always, always looking for something new to get overly obsessed with, so send your recs my way!
*Wikipedia tells us: Shipping, initially derived from the word relationship, is the desire by fans for two people, either real-life celebrities or fictional characters, to be in a relationship, romantic or otherwise.