[Slight spoilers ahead.]
It’s a classic romantic trope: two people meet, hate each other intensely, but through repeated interactions that reveal different facets of their characters eventually fall in love. And yet, when the pairing is boy-boy or girl-girl, fans routinely have to act out their fantasies through slash fan fiction – because, of course, homosexual pairings could never actually be in mainstream books, movies, or comics, right?
Author Rainbow Rowell is part of a growing group of creators trying to change that, whether through Netflix original series like Orange is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, or Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Iceman coming out openly gay and hosting their first same-sex wedding in 2012, or the growing list of diverse, quality books featuring LGBTQA+ characters. Though the representation is still far from enough, we are undoubtedly seeing a renaissance of representation, diversity, and inclusiveness in our media. And it’s about time.
Ms. Rowell continues this trend with her book Carry On, a Chosen One/Harry Potter spoof about Simon Snow, the eponymous Chosen One, and Basilton (Baz) Pitch, two teenage magicians who have spent the last seven years trying to kill each other. Simon represents the current ruling class, which is trying to equalize magic by taking it from the rich, powerful, former ruling class and fighting the Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious figure that sucks magic from Great Britain and routinely tries to kill Simon. Baz is a member of the former ruling class, a posh, sophisticated, intelligent kid fiercely loyal to his family and their ideals being used against Simon. He is also a vampire (which makes things very, very complicated) and, despite how much he seems to hard Simon, is hopelessly in love with him. Oh, and did I mention that they’re roommates?
Simon and Baz come from Ms. Rowell’s previous work Fangirl, which I reviewed some time ago here. Originally, they were meant to be a Harry Potter placeholder to allow Fangirl’s main character, Cath, a fanfiction vehicle. However, the two quickly took on a life of their own, compelling Ms. Rowell to flesh out their story from more than just parody. And yet, readers need not start with Fangirl. Yes, part of the joy of Carry On is wondering when Simon and Baz will get together, but their relationship isn’t contingent upon what Ms. Rowell, Cath, or Simon Snow’s “creator” Gemma T. Leslie wrote earlier: Carry On is its own, self-contained story, and the characters in it are fully formed and fully engaging. Feel free to dive right in.
The book itself is a soft exploration of the relationship between Simon and Baz and how they see themselves, each other, and the world around them. It switches perspectives between the various characters to give the reader a better view of exactly what’s happening, where the miscommunications are coming from, and the hidden ways people view themselves and others. Despite the fact that the characters are trying to solve a murder and stop the disappearance of magic, the book is not particularly plot-heavy. However, it’s not supposed to be. In the vein of Jane Austen, it’s more about the slight but powerful actions of a few individuals and how they react to small but significant events.
And it’s successful. Simon, Baz, Penelope, Fiona, Lucy, and the Mage are all very complicated, confusing characters, but through the course of the novel we see how they grow and change. We understand more about their motivations and the motivations of people like them. We watch in horror as the best intentions become twisted and dark. We mourn certain actions and events, and we cheer the minor victories – overcoming animosity, reestablishing their sense of self, and doing the right thing. It’s very easy to get emotionally attached to these characters (which is why I immediately went out and wrote a 65,000 word fan fiction).
Unfortunately, the book is not the sunshine and rainbows I’ve come to expect from Rainbow Rowell. Thus far, her books have been about starting a character at their lowest point and slowly but surely raising them to happiness, love, and fulfillment. This doesn’t mean that her characters won’t experience conflict or tragedy throughout the novel; it simply means that overall her characters are on an upward trajectory. I don’t want to give too much away, but that’s not really what happens in Carry On. Yes, certain mysteries do get resolved, but the focus is more on the reader’s edification than the characters’. This results in heartbreak, depression, and a bittersweet ending (It’s good, and I can’t really see how she would have done otherwise, but it may have broken my poor little heart.) – which, to be fair, made me reread the book.
I am deeply attached to these characters and perhaps more so than I have been to fictional people in years. Despite the fact that the we-hate-each-other-now-let’s-fall-in-love romantic trope is one of my least favorite clichés and Jane Austen is one of my least favorite authors, I loved watching Simon and Baz finally connect. I also loved Simon, despite the fact that his blustering, bullying personality is usually one of my least favorite. However, Ms. Rowell was able to show me what Simon has had to overcome in his life and how genuinely he tries, which made me respect and appreciate him. Likewise, Baz ended up being a lovesick dork obsessed with cars and comic books who’s just putting on a cool, brave face. What’s not to love about that?
I could gladly read a series on these characters (especially if there’s going to be more fluff), and I am deeply unwilling to move away from this world. I don’t care about Harry Potter, and I don’t like it, but Carry On read as much more than a Harry Potter fanfic. Rather, it read as a critique on the world and as an alternative, effectively saying, “This is what you could have done. This is how the series could have been.” It’s refreshing to see.
I also think Ms. Rowell does a good job of not fetishizing her queer characters, which is a complaint the community often has. Routinely, lesbians are seen as sex objects and gay boys as accessories. Ms. Rowell avoids that by making Simon and Baz complex and deliberately shying away from excessive or graphic sex scenes, letting us simply glimpse a few tender moments between the two. She falters in having no one suggest that Simon might be bisexual (which she admits in a later interview), but she allows him to feel conflicted about his newfound feelings while simultaneously having Baz concretely know that he’s gay. It helps hammer home that your orientation is not always something you’re aware of/doesn’t change – but that it can be.
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone that loves magic, fantasy, and deep, compelling characters. If you want a fast-paced action plot, this probably isn’t for you; likewise, if you can’t handle a bit of Harry Potter mockery, this might also not be for you. However, if you choose not to read it, you’ll be missing out on Mitali Bunce, the powerful academic who turned a Margaret Thatcher quotation into an offensive spell, Ebb the goatherd (and possibly the most powerful magician of her age next to Simon), silly spells like on love’s light wings, and the utter badass Fiona Pitch, who thinks she’s still living in the 90s punk rock scene. Carry On will make you laugh and grin and maybe even cry. It’s worth the read.