Let’s face it. If Rainbow Rowell wrote the instructions on the back of a box of oatmeal, I would read it. Many Cannonballers understand exactly what I’m saying and I have to thank their rave reviews from the early days for introducing her to me.
“Fangirl,” in particular, is one of my favorite books. Rowell captures what it’s like to be a college freshman: starting at square one, trying to make new friends, and figuring out who you are. The main character in that novel, Cath, is a fan of the fictional “Simon Snow” series of books about a school for magicians in England. These books, along with the personal adventures that she creates for Simon Snow in her own fan fiction, are the security blanket Cath brings from home when she moves away for college.
Rowell explored the fictional Simon Snow world with a standalone book, “Carry On,” a couple of years after “Fangirl” was published. This is the second of the Simon Snow books. I’m not going to get super spoiler-y here, but if you haven’t read the first, maybe skip this review for the time being.
Honestly, I had to google what happened in the first book, “Carry On.” I just could not remember the plot very well. Four years has passed since it was published. I read it but never really felt connected to the characters. As much as I love Rowell’s writing, “Carry On” just didn’t do it for me. It was a little too Harry Potter-esque. I was also reading Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” series around the same time which didn’t help. The books are different but dabble in similarly clever creature and spell naming as well as the mythology of a “chosen one.”
In “Carry On” the characters fought a potential world-ending battle and now, in this new novel, are trying to pick up the pieces in the battle’s aftermath. Shell-shocked Simon, Penelope and Baz head to America for a road trip to visit Penelope’s boyfriend in Chicago and their friend Agatha who had already left for California to heal her own wounds. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and their road trip leads them into the uncharted territory of magic in America.
Stripped, at least initially, of a grand battle du jour, the characters became more fleshed out for me this time around. In the early part of the book, without a problem to solve other than the realization that driving from Illinois to California is more than a few hours (Blimey! America is big!), the characters are left to deal with their relationships and the residual trauma from defeating the Mage.
It’s a comedy of errors as the characters struggle to match their expectations of America with the reality of it. The confusion and delight with aspects of American culture was so hilarious that I snort-laughed through a lot of it. Just enough levity was provided to offset the internal struggle each of them was going through. Here was the character development that I was missing from the first book.
The most interesting part of the book, however, was the importance of language to magic. I don’t remember this being as much of a big deal in the first book, but again, my memory of “Carry On” is fuzzy. Magic spells are dependent on language and the people that speak it. The vast landscape of America offers endless pockets of different vernaculars within swaths of open land devoid of “speakers” to pull the magic from. Their difficulty is summoning the correct words to cast spells is just a symptom of a bigger problem: their inability to communicate with each other.
I really enjoyed this book and flew through it in an afternoon. I agree with the both Malin and Jen K on the ending. It did seem a little to rushed, but that could also have been because I wasn’t ready to be finished with it. The conclusion is left wide open for a sequel, but I would actually rather Rowell write the books that proceed “Carry On.” I can’t help but think that if she had written the full Simon Snow series, and started with the beginning of his story, rather than jump in midstream, I would have been more invested with the characters. It was like reading Harry Potter, but starting with “Half Blood Prince.”
This is really a 3 1/2 stars for me, but can’t do the halfsies on Word Press.