by Rainbow Rowell (Pan Macmillan, 2015)
A young adult fantasy novel with a gay teenage vampire—what’s not to like?! But even apart from that, Carry On is a rather entertaining read, if a little rough around the edges. Imagine that there was a multi-volume fantasy series, but only the final book ever got published. Well, that’s really what Carry On is. Confused? It’s also a sort of fan-fiction of a fan-fiction that the author Rainbow Rowell made up for her previous novel, Fangirl. Even more confused? Wouldn’t blame you.
This is what happened. In the Fangirl universe, which is somewhat like our own reality, Simon Snow is sort of like Harry Potter, wildly popular and wildly successful. The protagonist Cath happens to be a prolific, popular fan-fic writer, and has her own ongoing, epic-length alternate Simon Snow story in the works, which she races to finish before the author releases the (real) final book of the series. Cath’s fan-fic is called Carry On, Simon, and is a slash-fic, where, instead of being sworn adversaries, Simon and his nemesis Baz fall in love. Carry On is Rainbow Rowell’s version of the story (and not, as she takes some pains to explain, the fanfiction that Cath was writing). Still confused? Oh, never mind, just enjoy the book. Even though Carry On is related to Fangirl, it is a standalone story.
As described on Tor.com, it is “basically Harry Potter, but if Harry and a Draco/Snape hybrid were roommates. And fell in love.” Yes, that’s right. But is Carry On a Potter rip-off? It might have been, if J.K. Rowling wrote only the last book and not the whole series, but if one were to spend time and effort looking for similarities, it would be a waste of a decent book. Carry On starts in Simon’s last year at Watford, the school of magic that he attends. Simon, as the Mage’s Heir, has a role to play in an impending showdown that has been prophecied for generations, but it doesn’t help that while extremely powerful, he’s a laughably inept mage. “The worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen,” according to his roommate, rival, antagonist, whatever you call him, the vampire Tyranus Basilton Grimm-Pitch.
The story opens with Baz missing, and Simon convinced he is busy plotting to kill him. Aided by his best friend Penelope, Simon tries valiantly to keep his sanity intact. Meanwhile, the Insidious Humdrum, the greatest threat known to magic, is disrupting the magical realm, and widening the rift between the different Magickal factions vying for power. The two main sides to this are: the Mage, who bats for social equality, and the high-brow Pitches, one of the most powerful magical families of the nation who feel Magickal knowledge and access should be limited to the few. It is prophesied that this rift will lead to a showdown between Simon (who is the Mage’s Heir) and Baz. If, that is, the Humdrum doesn’t destroy everything in the meantime. To add to the complications, the Humdrum looks like Simon, or at least like a twelve-year-old Simon.
As a set-up and plot, Carry On is somewhat wanting. The world-building is hurried—necessitated by the fact that we have been catapulted into what is the eighth and final book of an epic-ish series. One wasn’t terribly clear what the Mage and the Pitches were really battling over, especially with the threat of the Humdrum—which, incidentally, is easily the worst name for a deadly enemy in a book ever—lurking menacingly in the background, free to come and go and attack as needed. But there are dragons, numpties, vampires, pixes; there are fires, friendships, loves and betrayals; and most of all, there are some rather memorable characters, especially Baz and Penelope. And most of all, there is a fantastic new spell system. Well-known phrases, lyrics from songs, poems and pop culture, which have gained “great power” from frequent use, make up the spells. Witness: “A little bird told me” to send messages; “Scooby Dooby Doo, where are you”, a revealing spell; “Time flies” to make time speed up, but only if you’re having fun; “Have a break, Have a Kit-Kat” to crumble a hard substance.
If there is one complaint about Carry On, it is the uneven pacing. The story takes forever to get under way as Baz only makes an appearance about a third of the way in. Which means a good 150 pages are given to Simon pining for him. Of course, it’s depicted as being an obsession, but there is no other clearer reason why he was prowling about in the school premises, having sleepless nights and thinking of nothing else but why Baz was not yet back. The real action only starts once Baz returns and we learn why he had been away. Overall, there isn’t much of school life we see in the story, and a lot of the narrative is given to reminding us of what happened in x year when Simon (and/or his friends) were kidnapped or otherwise threatened by the Humdrum.
Baz is without doubt the most fascinating character of the book and more’s the pity that he arrived so late, especially because that time was spent in some pointless wafting about by Simon. His inner monologues were funny, witty and poignant. In his defence, he probably got the best lines, what with being a secret vampire, gay, having seen his mother being killed as a five-year-old, being secretly in love with his roommate who’s also his nemesis. All of this makes him deliciously complex. Penelope is a close second as the book’s most memorable characters. She certainly had some shades of Hermione—smart as a button, audacious, brave and a good friend, not to mention a head full of frizzy red hair.
The Mage is a strange character, though we never really get a real sense of what he’s like. Indeed, he plucked Simon from the obscurity of an orphanage and made him his heir, but doesn’t actually seem to be all that much interested in him. Nor does he seem to take much of an active interest in his students, despite having defied the Magickal establishment to include Normal-born students into Watford. His larger-than-life persona is alluded to by Simon, but again, we don’t really see much of it.
Even though the story is set in England, there were parts that felt distinctly American. First of all, there was the terminology (chalkboard!). Second, all the young people seemed to be jumping into cars and driving around, much like we’ve seen and read American teens doing. Maybe British eighteen-year-olds also have equal access to cars and drive about with abandon, but it didn’t feel right somehow.
A young-adult fantasy novel from a top writer like Rowell with a cast that isn’t necessarily straight or white, inclucing some main characters, is refreshingly welcome. What is great is that it is done with a great deal of class and it is played up exactly as much as needed, no more, no less. Must say, though, that Baz’s secret pining for Simon were just as enjoyable (perhaps more?) than when their attraction actually came out into the open.
It is rare these days to get a satisfying standalone fantasy story, for which Rainbow Rowell has to be commended. It is also impressive to see her straddling genres so effortlessly. Carry On is a funny and heartwarming story about not just fighting evil, but also finding your place in the world.