I read this book too fast. I didn’t intend to. I picked it out as my travel book for a week of work and visiting friends in Boston, thinking I’d chip away a little each day. Then I read most of it on the flight out and finished it the next day because I just. couldn’t. help myself.
In writing these reviews for #CBR10, I’m beginning to wonder if the amount of detail I retain is inversely proportional to the amount of time it takes me to read a book. I loved this book and have thought about it a lot since I finished, yet I don’t remember as much as I should for a book I enjoyed so much. A lot is coming back as I write this review, but I may have to give it the rare re-read once I hit my cannonball for this year.
I have CBR to thank for introducing me to Rainbow Rowell (a debt I can NEVER repay), so I’m well aware that her YA queer-magicians-and-vampires novel Carry On is no stranger to these parts. Expanding on Cath’s Simon Snow fanfic from Fangirl, Rowell takes inspiration from Harry Potter to build a story and world at once familiar and utterly unique.
This story begins near the end. It’s Simon Snow’s seventh and last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and his roommate and nemesis Baz is nowhere to be seen. Simon’s best friend Penny urges him to enjoy the silence, but he’s even more on edge, paranoid that Baz is not only trying to steal his girlfriend Agatha but also plotting a decisive attack to finally eliminate “the worst Chosen One to ever be chosen”. Making things worse, the head of Watford and leader of Mages is largely absent, ostensibly to bolster defenses against the Insidious Humdrum, the biggest threat the World of Mages has ever faced, but in reality he’s commanding raids against the wealthy and educated to consolidate his own power.
When Baz finally appears, we learn the main reason he hates Simon: Baz is in love with him, and he hates himself for it. The boys form a tentative alliance after the ghost of Baz’s mother accidentally appears to Simon and leaves a message that Baz has to find her murderer in order to save magic. As they work together but continue to suspect each other of treachery, their feelings eventually boil over, taking them both by surprise and complicating their respective quests.
Rowell takes the cultural elements JK Rowling only hinted at (or worse, cynically tacked on after the fact) and amps them to 11. Major and minor characters are explicitly LGBT, multi-ethnic, even multi-species. Class warfare is even more pronounced, with the Old Families conspiring to bring down the The Mage for opening Watford to any riffraff who can harness magic, including a couple of manic (literal) pixie lesbian dreamgirls. Otherness is sometimes celebrated but also demonized, even by the would-be heroes. However, Rowell’s characters and situations have nuance and can’t be so easily classified as “good” vs. “evil”. To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, “Vampires can be right. Dragons can be good.” Best of all, Rowell permeates everything with a simple yet elegant reminder that the magical powers of language can be hijacked for destructive purposes if we’re not vigilant.
I resisted the temptation to dive into another Rainbow Rowell book so soon after reading Fangirl, but after reading Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda a few weeks ago, I felt like I had no choice. I mean, her main character is a gay teenager named Simon with an uncool but also undying devotion to Harry Potter. These Simons make perfect companions, both for the sensitive teenage boy in me that wishes he had books like this back in the late 80’s, as well as for the adult in me who delights in this kind of escapist yet thought-provoking entertainment.