“Sharing a room with the person you want most is like sharing a room with an open fire.
He’s constantly drawing you in. And you’re constantly stepping too close. And you know it’s not good–that there is no good–that there’s absolutely nothing that can ever come of it.
But you do it anyway.
Well. Then you burn.”
For those who don’t know (where have you been?), Carry On is a young adult book that was born out of the story in one of Rainbow Rowell’s earlier books, Fangirl. In Fangirl, the main character, Cath, writes fanfiction about a character called Simon Snow, from an ongoing (fictional) series that shares a lot of similarities with the Harry Potter books. Throughout Fangirl, we see snippets of Simon Snow’s story, both in its original canon, and from Cath’s fanfic, and when Fangirl was finished, Rainbow Rowell decided to expand on these, by writing a full novel, inspired by a mixture of the fictional Simon Snow books, and Cath’s fanfiction.
Following a familiar idea, Carry On is a young adult fantasy story about Simon Snow, the “Chosen One”, a young magician who attends a wizarding school, struggles to control his powers, and could at any moment be captured by a magic-eating monster (again). On top of that, when Simon returns to school for his final year, he finds that his roommate and nemesis, Baz, who also happens to be a vampire, is missing.
“He smiles, and he’s made of trouble.”
As you can probably tell, this book shares a lot of the same set-up as the Harry Potter books. The story takes place at a wizarding school, features an orphaned Chosen One supported by a plucky friendship group, and the main character is tied-up in a fight against a villain that threatens the world of magic. But other than this initial set-up, this book has a very different feel to the Harry Potter series. There’s more swearing, the spells use common English phrases like “Some like it hot!” and “Clear the air!”, the tone is generally less serious, and romance plays a bigger role in the story. In fact, this book is probably as much about exploring the characters and the romance as it is about the world of mages.
This book held a lot of promise. Fangirl is one of my favourite young adult reads, and I never wanted it to end. I expected this book to be fun and silly, and full of angst and tension between Simon and Baz. And while it had some of these things, I just didn’t love this book as much as I thought I would. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave me with that same hunger for more that Fangirl did, and actually, I finished it feeling kind of disappointed, which really surprised me since I know how many of my bookish friends love this book.
Before I get into the reasons for my disappointment, I’ll start by talking about the positives:
- I really enjoyed the romance/sexual tension in some of the later scenes. These are written really well, and don’t feel too cliched.
- In general, the Chosen One/nemesis romance is a really fun idea that plays out nicely.
- This book isn’t as similar to Harry Potter as I expected. Rainbow Rowell makes the setting her own, by adding some unusual twists that never would have been seen in J. K. Rowling’s books.
- I liked that the characters feel like normal teenagers. They talk about sex, they curse, and they’re even thinking about university.
- There must be something I really liked about Simon and Baz, as during certain parts of the book, they did pop into my head during my everyday life, so something about these characters obviously captured my imagination.
- The book explores ideas like being the Chosen One, destiny, and power, and I like that it picks apart some common fantasy tropes.
“Just when you think you’re having a scene without Simon, he drops in to remind you that everyone else is a supporting character in his catastrophe.”
Now I’m going to talk about the parts that didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
One problem with this book is that because it’s a standalone that in theory comes at the end of a long series of books, there’s a lot of world-building, and some time is spent explaining the current situation and the relationships between the characters. To Rainbow Rowell’s credit, this isn’t as tedious or as hard to read as world-building in fantasy sometimes can be, but at the same time, it just isn’t particularly interesting to read, especially when so much of the backdrop resembles Harry Potter.
The build-up also meant that in general, this book feels quite long, and I can’t help but think I would have enjoyed it more had it been maybe a hundred pages shorter. Additionally, the story is told from multiple points of view, and I’m not sure all of these are necessary. For me, this didn’t add a lot to the story, and there were a couple of times when I forgot who was narrating a chapter, because the character didn’t have a particularly distinct voice or viewpoint.
While the characters each have something unique about them, and I liked Baz and Penelope in particular, I never managed to really feel invested in them. Maybe other people have managed to really connect with the characters in this book, but for me, they just didn’t quite feel real enough, and I don’t feel like I ever got a really in-depth impression of them.
“Magic separates us from the world; may nothing separate us from each other.”
The other main aspect of the book is the romance. As readers of Fangirl would know, Cath sees an underlying romantic tension between Simon and his nemesis, Baz, which becomes apparent in this book. I like this slightly unconventional take on romance, and enjoy the emotional turmoil this causes the characters. It’s a fun idea to play with, and some of the romantic scenes I really liked. There’s one scene in particular where the tension comes to a head that I thought was written especially well (probably because it slightly resembled fanfiction being realized), so I thought this section was great. However, I would have liked to see the romantic tension build up more gradually, since the moment feels quite sudden, and I love a slow-burning romance. The romance wasn’t bad, it just didn’t have that level of teenage angst I’d been hoping for.
So, those are my thoughts on Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. I liked it, but I found it hard to feel invested in, and I just didn’t love it like I expected to. When I see bookish friends’ reviews of Carry On, I wonder if there’s something I’m missing. Everyone else seems to have loved this book, but it just didn’t connect with me. Is it because I’m older than its intended audience? Does it appeal more to contemporary readers than to fantasy readers, and having read a lot of adult fantasy, I have different expectations of the fantasy genre? Maybe it’s just not my kind of book – I tend to lean towards darker, sadder books, over fluffier contemporaries, so maybe this wasn’t for me. Or maybe my expectations were just too high.
I’m rating this book 3/5, because I liked it and was more than happy to read it on my journey to work, but it won’t be a story that sticks with me for a long time.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book – did you love it as much as you expected? Let me know in the comments below!
“Carry on, Simon.”