Rainbow Rowell + fantasy = perfection to me
Reviewed in the United States on 26 January 2016
Oh, Carry On, how do I even begin to do you justice? I'll just have to muddle through and hope for the best.
Simon Snow is an orphan, forced to spend his summers in various group homes around Britain. The rest of the school year he spends at the Watford School of Magicks, where he's just returned for his very final year (but not before having to behead a goblin trying to kill him on the way there). Simon Snow is the Chosen One of wizardkind, but most of the time, he can't even perform basic spells. He's so full of magic and barely restrained anger that when he really lets go, things explode or catch fire. Sometimes both at once. He didn't ask to be the Chosen One, destined to save all of magic from the ever-growing threat of the Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious force wearing the face of his eleven-year-old self. He knows that he's unlikely to survive their final encounter.
His best friend, Penelope Bunce, is one of the best witches at the school and she does what she can to help Simon in every way. She worries about him when they are separated for the summer, and she tries to avoid thinking about what is likely to happen after they finish school. What she most wants to do is take Simon somewhere and get a little flat, far away from magical intrigue and his inevitable showdown with the Humdrum. Not that she fancies him in any way, a fact she wishes Simon's girlfriend would understand - she just wants to take care of him, like any loyal friend would.
Simon's girlfriend is Agatha Wellbelove, the prettiest, most graceful girl at Watford. She and Simon have been going out for the past three years, and Simon always spends Christmas with her family. She doesn't really particularly like magic, and would happily go to a normal school with her normal friends, and she certainly doesn't relish the fact that she risks being collateral damage every time the Humdrum sends something horrible to endanger Simon. And then there is Baz, Simon's darkly handsome and mysterious roommate (and sometimes nemesis), who intrigues her so. Not that her parents would be happy if she dumped the Chosen One for a Tory vampire.
Simon's mentor and the headmaster at Watford, the Mage, is barely present at the school, always off somewhere looking for new magical artifacts or texts to fight the constant dangers, but when he does return, he suggests Simon may want to leave Watford, and hide away somewhere. But Simon can't do that. Everything he knows and loves is there, and if he leaves, he won't be able to keep an eye on Baz, who for mysterious reasons hasn't returned for the fall term. Just before Simon and Penelope were magically whisked away by the Humdrum at the end of last term, Simon saw Baz and Agatha holding hands in the woods. Now Baz, the pompous and devious git, hasn't even returned to Watford. Simon is convinced he's plotting against himself and the Mage, and can't seem to eat or sleep properly, combing the grounds looking for him. What sort of nemesis just leaves?
Like a lot of others, I suspect I found the Simon Snow parts of Fangirl (both the "official" Gemma T. Leslie sections, and Cath's fan fiction) the least interesting part of the book, and when I listened to the audio book during my convalescence from concussion, I frequently skipped them. Yet I was intrigued when Rainbow Rowell, one of my favourite authors, said that she couldn't get Simon and Baz out of her head, and was writing a book about them. Not her fictional author Gemma T. Leslie's version, or her fictional fan Cath's extended fan fiction, but in a very meta way, a kind of fan fiction of her own previous creations.
I tried to avoid too many interviews, as I didn't want to get spoiled, but since I've loved every single thing she'd previously written, Rainbow Rowell writing YA fantasy was going to have to be pretty awful for me not to enjoy it. It turns out I was so eager for the book, I completely failed to realise that I pre-ordered the book TWICE - once on Amazon and once on Kobobooks. Because I am getting older, I can't actually stay up until the early hours of the morning reading, and then going to work to teach the young, so I wasn't able to finish the book until the day after I got it. Once I did, I had the biggest book hangover, though. I had fairly high expectations for the book, and it surpassed every single one.
To anyone who has ever read a Harry Potter book (or not lived in an isolated cave for the past few decades, because really, who hasn't heard of the Harry Potter universe?), the influence here is very obvious. Rainbow Rowell has said that she loves Chosen One stories, and wanted to explore what it meant to BE chosen in her own book. Of course any such individual in their right mind wouldn't exactly love that their ultimate fate is probably to fight and die to save the greater good. Simon tries very hard not to think too much of his time after Watford, as he is very unlikely to survive to see it.
There are so many clever references here, some calling back to Fangirl, but also a whole host of other YA literature, most obviously Twilight. Simon spent his entire fifth year trying to prove that Baz was a vampire, and his confrontation scene with his roommate had me laughing out loud. The ever-present YA love triangle is also present, but dealt with very deftly and the romantic tension in this book was the main reason I was so frustrated I couldn't actually stay awake long enough - I wanted to get to the kissing! It was all extremely worth it, though. I don't want to reveal how many times I may have re-read the chapters where the kissing first happens, but I read a lot of romance, and YA fiction rarely takes my breath away. It was pretty swoon-worthy, and my inner 14-year-old squeed.
If you've ever enjoyed any sort of book or film or TV show, where the Chosen One constantly ends up endangering his friends and/or family, is struggling with the fate of the world and the safety of humanity on his or her shoulders, where there is a love/hate-relationship between the protagonist and the love interest, you should read this book. I was practically glowing with happiness when I completed the book, and once the doctor decreed that I wasn't allowed to do anything more taxing with my brain than listen to audiobooks, I promptly got this (a book I'd already paid for twice, mind you), just so I could experience it again. Euan Morton does a good job with all the different accents and voices, but sounds a bit too old for all the teenage characters. Since I always listen to books on x1.25 or even x1.50, that wasn't a problem for me, and I can very much recommend it as a great listen.
It's always much harder to not just gush incoherently when reviewing a book you really love. This book completely blew me away, and will without a shadow of a doubt be high on my top 10 of 2015. If this is Rainbow Rowell's first attempt at fantasy, I can't imagine what she could do if she decided to play in the genre again some time.
One person found this helpful