The first and only thing you need to know about this book is that it’s magnificently, enthrallingly, undeniably brilliant and you should read it. Immediately. Well, what are you waiting for? Go, go!
Unconvinced? Sigh. Fine. Simon Snow is the Chosen One, but he’s a bit shaky on what exactly he’s been chosen for. After all, he still can’t control his magic very well, he’s on the outs with his seemingly perfect girlfriend, and he’s no closer to defeating the evil plaguing his country than when he was discovered at age 11. Even his pale, vicious, aristocratic roommate has stopped trying to murder him. In fact, Baz isn’t at school at all. Where is he? What is he plotting? Even his whip-smart bestie Penelope is growing tired of his roommate obsession and wants to focus on the threat to the magic world. But Simon knows Baz has something to hide. And then the ghosts come out, and things get even more complicated…
Does this sound vaguely reminiscent of Harry Potter? Well, despite its cleverly original magic system and totally different blend of protagonists and antagonists, it ought to. It’s heavily based on Harry Potter, but not in the way you would expect.
Carry On has a rather complicated genesis, so bear with me. First, you need to know that Rainbow Rowell previously wrote Fangirl, about a young woman who wrote fanfic. But not just any fanfic. Cath, the fictional protagonist, was writing a novel-length fanfic about a thinly-disguised Harry Potter character named Simon Snow. And the name of this fictional fanfic? Carry On, of course.
So yes, this is real book based on a fake fanfic in a different real book, and the fake fanfic is itself based on a fake book which is based on a real book series. If this doesn’t give your inner English major thrills–or if you have no inner English major (you poor thing)–then you can just ignore it. None of it is necessary to understanding Carry On, though it does make everything loads better. The moments of strange dissonance when you pause and think exactly who wrote this and for what reason are nothing I’ve ever experienced before. It’s an entire metatextual book, and not in an obtuse, scholarly way, but in a delightful, accessible way. Rowell is singlehandedly smashing the walls between “legitimate” and “fan” writing, between “mainstream” and “genre,” and most especially between “hetero” and “queer.”
Since Fangirl already spoiled this, I have fewer qualms about revealing that there is major queer romance. Rowell handles it exactly as she did in her incomparable Eleanor and Park, which is to say, with more sweetness and sexiness and genuine thoughtfulness than most YA put together. It’s also great to see an author so masterfully walking the line between a book about queerness and a book that contains queerness. It’s neither the sole, consuming subject nor in the background. Or, to put it another way, it’s exactly like any heterosexual romance in YA.
Often queer YA is doubly doomed by being “genre” fiction twice over, relegated to a niche within a niche when really, it ought to be much more widely embraced. This is part of the reason why we have so much fanfic: there just aren’t that many young, queer characters. This is changing, and Carry On is a giant leap in the right direction. Add to it a spate of diverse and diversely motivated characters, and Rowell is right on the cusp of a revolution in YA. Not just because she’s chosen these characters (or they’ve chosen her), but because she’s just so damn insightful about them.
Neglect and abandonment and cruelty. Privilege and poverty. Loss. Rowell deftly manages all these without making the book a complete downer. (Actually, it’s quite funny.) She just doesn’t flinch when looking at the tough stuff, nor does she make a gigantic, hand-wringing deal of it. And that’s life. Even in a magical school with entitled lordlings and magic goatherds, the conflicts are profoundly human. Sometimes a little banal, sometimes the result of frustrating character flaws, these things balance out a world full of vampires and dragons. I’ve never read anyone better able to convey wrenching realities with such matter-of-fact-ness. When Simon describes why he is bad with language–because in foster care, most children are not spoken to very much, and their language learning is slowed–my heart just breaks. But like the title says, he carries on.
I am shelving Carry On right next to the Harry Potter series, and not just because Rowell is conveniently close to Rowling (though good job there). This is simultaneously the best riff, the most natural successor, and the best subversion of Harry Potter I could imagine. Now go on, get reading. Simon says.