Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is the realization of the fantasy world that the main character in Fangirl writes about.

It's Simon Snow's last year at Watford, the school of Magick that is more of a home to him than any of the orphanages and foster homes where he grew up. Nothing is going according to plan, though -- the Insidious Humdrum is causing havoc all over Britain, but the Mage is strangely absent and preoccupied. Simon has had a fight with his girlfriend, and Baz, Simon's evil vampire roommate, hasn't even shown up for the start of term. Simon's need to know what Baz is up to pretty much amounts to a fixation -- who knew he could be even more irritating in absence than when present? And of course, what Simon should really be worrying about is the Insidious Humdrum, who can suck a region dry of magic, and who recently appeared in the guise of Simon himself as a young boy. Why is the Humdrum wearing Simon's face, and does the Mage have any plans to stop the Humdrum from stealing magic?

If you've read Fangirl, you know that in that universe the Simon Snow series is an eight-book fantasy epic much like Harry Potter, and Carry On, Simon is the massive slash fanfic written by Cath, the main character in Fangirl -- an alternate ending to the series. Of course, in our world, none of that exists, except now we have Carry On, which is probably not exactly what Cath would write, but closer to Cath's version of events than to Gemma T. Doyle's. (If you haven't read Fangirl, you're probably pretty confused by now. Sorry.) Basically, assume there have already been seven books about the adventures of Simon Snow, his best friend Penelope, his girlfriend Agatha, and his nemesis/roommate Baz. Except, of course, there haven't, so Rowell has to include some backstory that readers of the nonexistent series would already know about, which she does skillfully.

I went into this book with trepidation: due to the factors I attempted to explain in the preceding paragraph, the concept of Carry On sounded to me like Rowell was basically writing her own fanfiction. Plus, everything she's published until now has been pretty well grounded in reality (magical phone lines to the past notwithstanding). I shouldn't have worried. If anyone can pull off this crazy concept, it's Rainbow Rowell. Reading this book felt a little bit like reading Deathly Hallows again for the first time -- not because of any similarities in plot, but because she really captured the feeling of a long-awaited final book, even though the earlier books don't technically exist. Carry On lovingly (and obliquely) pokes at some of the weaknesses of Harry Potter without ever becoming too harshly critical.

And of course, Carry On is a fantastic story in its own right, with a carefully developed system of magic, elaborately imagined setting, and a plot that builds to a dramatic and surprising conclusion. I found the whole thing surprisingly gripping.

Can you read this book without having read Fangirl? Probably, but I wouldn't recommend it. Though the plot is entirely independent of Fangirl, the characters and relationships are introduced there in a way that primes the reader for greater enjoyment of Carry On. But if you're a fan of Fangirl and have been feeling some trepidation about Carry On, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

(Reviewed from a copy borrowed through my library system.)

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