Reading Fangirl brought me such joy that I immediately ordered Carry On and Wayward Son to be able to continue Simon and Baz’s adventures. In the review I wrote, “Waiting for Carry On has me checking the front porch every time the dog barks at the front door.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait much longer and they showed up in the next day or so. Since then I’ve blitzed through both books, reading them back to back and and finishing them in a matter of days, as opposed to the weeks everything else has taken (even though I’ve been enjoying everything I’ve read lately!). I had high expectations going in and they did not disappoint.
Before getting into the story review, I am ashamed to admit that I did not expect such an interesting and unique magic system. As the three previous books I read by Rowell were not fantasy, I made an assumption that the magic would not be fully developed. I was wrong and am chagrined to have not given Rowell more credit as a talented author. Her magic is based on language.
Words are very powerful,” Miss Possibelf said during our first Magic Words lesson….“And they become more powerful,” she went on, “the more that they’re said and read and written, in specific, consistent combinations. The key to casting a spell is tapping into that power. Not just saying the words, but summoning their meaning.” Which means you have to have a good vocabulary to do magic. And you have to be able to think on your feet. And be brave enough to speak up. And have an ear for a solid turn of phrase. And you have to actually understand what your’re saying – how the words translate into magic.
So what does that mean? Say you spill wine on a white table cloth. You could cast, Out damn spot! and remove the wine. The phrase “out damn spot” is part of our vernacular and so those words together have power. A mage uses those words to channel the magic and create the effect. It’s not enough just to say the words, you must speak forcefully and enunciate, imbuing the words with meaning. Elocution classes are required at Watford School for Mages. A phrase only works as long as it holds in enough peoples collective conscious. A pop song lyric may become powerful enough to be used as a spell but once the popularity of the song falls, the spell may no longer function properly, or at all. In Wayward Son you find out that phrases which work as spells in England (Sod Off!), don’t work in America because not enough people in the USA use them. Also, interestingly, extremely low population density means a lack of people speaking, and result in magic dead zones.
Carry On and Wayward Son are clearly inspired by the Harry Potter books (Watford School for Mages tucked away in the English countryside, male orphan protagonist burdened with a great destiny, Simon Snow) but you can also step back and paint them in the broader strokes of a ‘Chosen One’ and ‘Road Trip’ story, respectively. Starting Carry On, I found myself comparing and contrasting it to Harry Potter and had to remind myself to stop. But it wasn’t long before I was wholly transferred to Rowell’s World of Mages.
Watford School for Mages has eight years, Carry On starts at the beginning of Simon Snow’s final year. Simon is an orphan, raised among Normals, who had no idea of his power until it awakened one day. He released a blast of magic so powerful that mages around England felt it and knew that the prophesied greatest mage has been found, the one who would defeat the ultimate evil, the Insidious Humdrum. Unfortunately, Simon is flawed, despite his power he has difficulty casting the most simple spells. For the past seven years of school, Simon and his friends Penelope and Agatha have been fighting against the Humdrum. Throughout Carry On, they refer to events that happened in previous years of school. It’s kind of as if you jumped into the Harry Potter world in the seventh book but Rowell is a deft writer, and while the snippets of story made me curious as to the details of specifically what happened before, I never felt it a detriment to not have the seven years worth of previous story. This was definitely not a case of the writer including so much backstory it’s evident they wrote the wrong story first.
Along with battling the Humdrum, Simon has been locked in a personal war with Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (called Baz), scion of two prestigious mage lineages, and his roommate. For years Simon has been obsessed with proving how evil Baz is. Little does Simon realize but that intense focus has started to shift something inside him. Baz is a tormented character. He is pushed by his family to keep tabs on Simon and undermine whatever he and the Mage, headmaster of Watford, are planning. This is a double edged sword as Baz, recognizing early in life that he is gay, has long been attracted to Simon but knows that Simon despises him.
Carry On is an excellent ‘Chosen One’ story as Simon tries to figure out how to defeat the Humdrum with his complicated relationship to magic. It also is a beautiful hate to love story as Simon becomes aware of his changing feelings and Baz begins to open himself more to Simon. I appreciate that Simon questions what his feelings for Baz mean, is he gay? Is it just Baz he is attracted to? He had a girlfriend for several years so what does that make him? But ultimately it doesn’t matter what Simon is, he’s attracted to Baz and that’s all that matters right now.
Carry On was originally intended as a standalone but the characters kept telling Rowell that they had more story to tell and four years later Wayward Son came out. So what happens after the apocalypse has been averted? What happens when you enter the “real” world, leaving your magical school behind and stop having to constantly be fighting the forces of evil? Simon and Baz’s relationship is going through a rocky patch. What started as all fire is now muted as Simon struggles with self-worth and Baz doesn’t know how to help him. Penelope, who always has a plan and is the brains behind Simon’s adventures, decides that the answer is take a road trip in America to shake things up!
Simon, Baz, and Penelope fly to Chicago with the intent of driving to San Diego, it’s only a couple of states away, that’s a couple hours, right? Things start to go sideways almost immediately on touch down and Penelope begins to doubt her unshakable belief that she always knows the right thing to do. The trio is more fragile and vulnerable ever than before. They are also navigating a whole new world of magic in America and they don’t know the rules. Magic and magical society is very different in America than England and I like Rowell’s thoughtful expansion on what she created in the first book.
I loved their adventures crossing the country. In particular was when they impulse visited a Renaissance Festival in Nebraska. They had no idea what one was and were gobsmacked on walking in. My husband and I worked at a Renaissance Festival in Michigan. He howled with laughter as I read passages aloud describing what the characters saw and their reactions. But it’s not all hijinks and escapades, the trio find themselves on the precipice of an evil that has been brewing in America.
Rowell sucks you in, creating characters that you care about so much and these characters are no exception. Simon and Baz’s are struggling and you ache for them, they clearly belong together. Penelope is having an internal crisis and is shaken by her uncertainty, you want to reassure her. When you reach the end of the book, you want to give them all a hug. At the very end of Wayward Son, Rowell drops a bomb and clearly there will be another book. Which has me very excited and anxious, wondering when she will be writing said book and what the publishing date will end up being. I don’t want to have to wait several years for a sequel!