Simon Snow is the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen.
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, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story—but far, far more monsters.
So after my second re-read of this fantastic book, in preparation for the sequel that the author is currently writing and getting us all hype about on twitter, I decided to finally review Carry On by Rainbow Rowell.
The thing about Carry On that most people ask when they know a little about it, is: « is that fanfiction? », which I think is infuriating on so many levels. The question implies a lesser quality in fanfiction, which is very much not true. The question also implies a lack of understanding of what is fanfiction, and of the quite literally century-long trend of books referencing other books. And also this question feels vaguely prejudiced against YA books for, you know, using tropes that another popular YA book has already used.
Carry On has a strange history, I’ll give you that. In Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl, her main character wrote fanfics of this one book serie about a wizard chosen one called Simon Snow (yes, a tongue-on-cheek reference to Harry Potter.) Then, once Fangirl was over and published, Rainbow Rowell kept thinking about Simon Snow, and how she, as an author, would tackle his world and his last year at Watford.
Due to this origin, Carry On does have several similarities to Harry Potter, but in the same way as every epic fantasy book ever has similarities to Lord of the Ring. The same way that every chosen one serie to come will have similarities to Harry Potter, or every vampires series references to Twilight. HP was a huge phenomenon, a game changer, and it used every trope in the book for the genre. Why anyone expects new novels to ignore that, I cannot say. (It’s a tired critique that I have seen too many times already with YA novels. A Hero at the End of the World, for example, gets this too, even though it couldn’t be more different than Harry Potter if it tried.)
But Carry On isn’t Harry Potter. It is a work that is in conversation with Harry Potter. It spends the firsts two or three chapters setting up a story that is very, intentionally similar, with many of the same tropes and situation. Simon Snow is a chosen one, due to complete his last year at magical school. He has an evil dark lord after him, his school rival is from an old magical family that hates him, his best friend is super smart, and the headmaster is his mentor. Great! But once all of that is established, every similarity to HP goes out the window. Rainbow Rowell is very good at her craft, and in this book she takes every trope and archetypes of the chosen one genre, and turns them on their heads. She builds her world and then deconstructs it in a way that is simply brilliant, in turn interrogating the chosen one mythos, turning it around, or playing with its loopholes.
Simon isn’t particularly good at magic. His love interest doesn’t really want to be anyone’s « happily ever after »; she’d like to be someone’s « right now ». The evil dark wizard isn’t what he seems. Simon’s school rival hasn’t even bothered to show up for this school year, and his absence is driving Simon bonkers. All of these plot points are already said in the blurb. But the way that they happen in the book, how they shape the story and how they are resolved, might just surprise you.
I definitely recommend Carry On to everyone who likes YA, chosen ones, magic, and tighly written character driven stories. Because that’s Rainbow Rowell’s strength even when magic isn’t involved, and it stays true here. Carry On, at its heart, is less about the mystery of how Simon’s school year will end. It’s more about a cast of characters who have been thrust into pre-defined roles since they were infants, and now they are chafing under this pressure, or straight up rebelling against their roles. No one in this story particularly wants to be the archetype that they have been cast as, from Penny who keeps repeating « I’m not your sidekick, Simon » to Simon himself (even though he doesn’t know it), and that makes for such a rich, complex story.
The world building is also in turn remarkably simple and satisfyingly complex. Magic has rules, hurray! And it’s probably the most interesting and easy to understand magical system that I’ve seen in a while, with a clear definition of how spells works and what makes a spell. These rules are then put to good use, and themselves played with and deconstructed during the big showdown at the end of the book, a scene that is itself a staple of the genre.
I will say one last thing, too: not many writers can make it so a character introduced halfway through the book can not only feel like he’s been present all along, but also become everyone’s favourite character. I can’t wait to read the sequel, in which I have been promised will feature more Baz.