In middle school, I gravitated towards Young Adult fiction novels like a natural satellite caught in the orbit of a thriving planet. Whether because I felt some sense of maturity at reading something on that level or I just genuinely enjoyed the tropes and clichés common to that genre, I was drawn to these types of books and would read nothing but. It was by this obsession that I happened upon the novel Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. It had been a few years before I finally picked it up again for a summer read, and upon digesting these words once more, I found there was still a lot to love.
Carry On follows a young magician named Simon Snow in his last year of attending the Watford School of Magicks. Simon is said to be the Chosen One who's been prophesied to save the magical world in its time of need. However, nothing seems to have been working out for him. His magic is unresponsive at best and explosive at worst, his girlfriend broke up with him, and to top of it all off, the great villain who’s terrorizing the magic in his world is running around wearing his face. Plus, his arch nemesis (and roommate) Baz is noticeably missing this school year. With a war between magicians threatening to boil to the surface and too many questions remaining unanswered, Simon must work together with his friends — and enemies — to overcome the most grueling challenge they’ve ever faced.
Rainbow Rowell first wrote about the characters Simon and Baz in her novel Fangirl, following the titular fangirl Cath, a fanfiction writer in her first year of college. In Fangirl, Simon and Baz were a fictional-narrative-inside-a-fictional-narrative, existing in a made-up fantasy book series and the fanfiction that Cath wrote for it. After Rainbow Rowell had finished writing that novel, she hadn’t felt quite satisfied with how she left it for Simon and Baz, and wanted to give them their own story. As Rowell said in Carry On’s author's note, “It [Carry On] was a way for me to give Simon and Baz, only half-imagined in Fangirl, the story I felt I owed them.”
Reading the book, it’s clear that Carry On takes a lot of inspiration from Harry Potter. The story focuses on British magicians who go to a magic school that is part of a larger, secret magic society. Not to mention, there’s the inclusion of a hidden world full of whimsical and interesting magical creatures. Though, the book differs from Harry Potter in various ways, ranging from worldbuilding features to plot elements, and it is shown that the aforementioned series is nothing more than an inspiration. Moreso, Carry On can serve as an homage to Harry Potter fans and a love for the genre of contemporary fantasy. The book especially serves as a tribute to those who fell in love with the fantasy world created from the Harry Potter books, but could not see themselves within it; because people like them weren’t the ones having the grand adventures.
A major aspect of this book that can not be overstated is its featuring of LGBTQ+ characters. More specifically, Carry On doesn’t just feature queer characters, but it also evades making their sexual identity the sole focus of their character (a surprisingly uncommon thing to find in most mainstream media). Not only that, but it also offers an important message that is not talked about enough within queer stories: it’s perfectly okay to not use any labels for yourself. In the age of information where knowledge can be acquired in a matter of seconds, there has arised an impatience in indecision and there is a pressure to find a box to put yourself in so that others can understand you. After all, if you can’t give a word to describe a facet of your identity, then how can you expect others to respect something they can’t even name? Though within the book the decision to not go by labels was used in the context of sexual orientation, the message also matters immensely in the realm of gender identity. Sometimes an entire journey or experience can’t just be summed up in a few syllables, and it’s completely alright to do without a label. Continuing, the writing itself in the book displays an open-minded perspective, making an effort to normalize queer identities and sentiments. When the character Penelope complains of her roommate, Trixie, for inviting her girlfriend into their room, the focus is not put on Trixie’s sexuality or that she has a girlfriend but rather that Trixie just makes the shared living space uncomfortable with how loud she is. Once again, the book prioritizes personality over sexual orientation in what defines a character. Something that stuck with me throughout my reading was despite the character Agatha being presented as alloromantic and likely straight, I could really relate to her ideas of love. Agatha’s declaration to the reader of, “I just don’t love Simon enough. I don’t love him the right way. Maybe I don’t have that sort of love in me—maybe I’m defective” (Rowell, 75) was something that really resonated with me from an aromantic perspective. Even though her character didn’t seem to take that direction, it was still so moving for me to see that kind of thought process surrounding romantic attraction discussed within a fantasy story, much less a best selling one.
Upon rereading this novel, the greatest thing about it that I hadn’t realized I had forgotten was the magic system. It’s quite possibly one of the most dazzling and interestingly explorable magic systems that I have seen in fantasy books; if not solely for the anthropological factors that constitute its being and the large source of potentiality that lies within its functions. In short, the magic that magicians use within the world of Simon Snow utilizes common speech and idioms as the “magic words.” For example, if a magician were to point their wand (or other magic instrument) at a closed door and chant “Open Sesame!” then as expected, it would cause the door to open. In Carry On’s magic system, magic is dependent on language. This sets up several interesting implications and parameters to work with. A spell in this world can only work if the words are still spoken and used, and the more popular a phrase, the stronger it is as a spell. It is for that reason that sayings and slang from over a hundred years ago wouldn’t work, because they do not have the same level of prominence as they once had. It also means that spells are localized, a powerful spell in one geographic reason may not have much of an impact in another. This makes it so that multilingualism is a valuable skill to have, as it allows for access to more spells. As well, magicians can not affect the power of the spells, how prevalent a figure of speech or idiom is depends on the non-magic people who don’t know of the magic world’s existence (the Normals). Which makes sense, language needs to evolve naturally without the awareness of magic or else new language may revolve only around the thought of creating new magic words and would therefore lose its authenticity. But the truly interesting aspect of this magic system is that it is not just the words themselves being spoken that brings forth magic, there is also a dependence on the intonation and the way the caster speaks when they cast a spell. The exaggeration of the words within phrases can affect the final outcome of the enchantment, which comes into play especially with double-entendres. Plus, just saying something doesn’t necessarily mean that spell will work, as some phrases create their own obstruction. For example, casting “time flies” to quickly progress through a journey can’t work unless all parties are having fun. And finally, with all the constraints and functions established, there is then room for asking the engaging questions that add depth to the world. Who benefits most from these rules? How do the less advantaged find ways to keep up the pace with their more privileged peers? How do the people living in this society feel about its rules? And for the better part of the story, I believe Carry On does a great job of taking these concepts into account.
Carry On’s characters are definitely one of its strong points as well. Rowell uses the stylistic choice of having several characters first-person narrate in different chapters. This lets the reader be privy to their inner thoughts and logic, something that could not have happened otherwise if the story was told in third person or just from one perspective. Rowell was very careful with how her characters thought of themselves, I noticed. All of them had some semblance or other to the role they are supposed to play in this kind of story, and they admit to the reader of wanting to be more than the cliché they must fill. My favourite example of this is Agatha, who was aware that her life seemed to be going in the direction of being only “Simon’s girlfriend” and resolved to lead her life pursuing her own interests instead of what others required of her. It was refreshing for these characters to take a step-back in their narration and consider if these roles they’ve been handed are what they actually want to define themselves with, it’s very realistic and only adds to the charm of the story.
To not overly repeat anything that has already been said, I enjoyed this book. A lot. There was a lot to it that I felt we should see more in modern fiction novels, especially fantasy ones, and I hope that you feel at least a little inspired to check out Carry On. Read this book if you enjoy reading about well-written friendships, vampires, complex magic systems that you could stay up to 3am analyzing, well-written female characters, dragons, queer stories, British shenanigans, and subtle pop-culture references.