I was naturally very excited to read Rainbow Rowell's latest novel, Carry On, which naturally has made it into the final round for a Goodreads Choice Award in the Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction category. What made me even more excited was the fact that it was for young adults, and included characters that were sparingly mentioned in my favorite Rowell novel, Fangirl. Carry On is the story of Simon Snow, a favorite fictional character of one of Rowell's fictional characters, but now with his own story and adventures.
The Situation: Simon Snow is in his last year at Watford, the school for magicians. Since the Mage, the headmaster of the school, first found Simon at a home for orphans and had him attend Watford, Simon has not only been made the Mage's heir, but he has also been told he is the Chosen One. He is believed to be the most powerful magician that ever lived, and anyone who has seen him use his magic, which he still has not learned to control, easily believes it. For the most part, Simon enjoys attending Watford, has made a best friend in the studious and stubborn Penny, and even has the beautiful if somewhat superficial Agatha as a girlfriend. Even with all of the attacks and trouble Simon has had at Watford, he would never miss his last year, even if it is optional. Plus, he really loves the food.
The Problem: If there is one main issue Simon has with Watford it is his roommate, Baz. In true Watford tradition, once you are matched up with a roommate in your first year, you stay roommates until graduation. So no matter how much Simon and Baz may loathe each other, they are stuck sharing living space. Simon is convinced that not only is Baz pure evil and continually plots against him, but he also believes that he is a vampire. He has never been able to get concrete proof, but if he did he would finally be able to convince the Mage to expel him. It also does not help that Baz comes from one of the most powerful magical families in England, and his mother was the former headmistress. But as much as Simon does not like sharing a room with someone he thinks of as pure evil, he actually likes it less when Baz does not show up for the first day, week, month...
Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is also often placed under fantasy and romance. Simon Snow has been prophesied to be the most powerful magician the world has ever known, and he now attends Watford, the best school for young magicians. Throughout the novel, class issues come up, not necessarily between those who have magic and those who do not (normals), but more between those from the more powerful families, and those who would have never been admitted to Watford had the Mage not changed the rules. And while certain species (for lack of a better term) such as pixies are allowed to attend the school, others such as vampires are expressly forbidden. Also, while Simon may be the most powerful magician ever known, he isn't much use to anyone, including himself, if he can't ever control it. His spoken spells rarely work, while less powerful students such as his friend Penny are able to summon almost any spell with little effort. As I mentioned earlier, the characters of Simon, Baz, Penny, and Agatha first appeared in Fangirl. Cath was obsessed with the series of novels and was one of the best writers of fan fiction containing them. While Rowell is done with Cath's story, she decided to continue Simon's adventure and tell his full story here in Carry On. Talk about meta.
My Verdict: Fangirl is (still) my favorite book by Rowell, and Carry On is a great story of adventure and friendship and love and overcoming tremendous adversity. Rowell's writing is once again on point and reminded me of why I get excited every time she publishes a new book. With all of that being said, I had a very hard time separating what was going on in Carry On, and what little I know (because I haven't read them) about Harry Potter. Maybe it is because Simon's story began as part of an ongoing fan fiction story in Fangirl, but I just could not shake the feeling that I was reading Harry Potter fan fiction. There are huge differences between the two stories of course, but the big main elements are still there: powerful orphaned boy wizard; evil classmate always seemingly plotting the hero's downfall; studious and powerful female friend; a school for magicians; a headmaster beyond reproach but also not liked but other powerful magicians; a friendly adult counselor who lives on the school grounds but mostly stays out of the way...you get the idea. Really, the book is a great adventure taken by another "chosen one" character. But unfortunately, we live in a world where one particular chosen one is almost always the first one we think about, and even in Carry On's most gripping scenes, Harry Potter's image and story was hard to shake, even for someone who has never read any of the books.
Favorite Moment: When it becomes clear to Simon that Ebb, his goat herding friend, is not as simple as she seems, and is more powerful than any of the children realized.
Favorite Character: As annoying and stubborn as she can be, I pick Penny. She may not be the most tactful person in Simon's life, but she is often the only one making any sense and acting in a way that actually benefits everyone and the situation.
Recommended Reading: Fangirl. When it comes to Rowell, it is always about Fangirl with me.