Best Book I've Read All Year. So Much More Than a Good Story
Reviewed in the United States on 10 July 2017
Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On did for me as a book what Back to the Future did as a movie, and what Star Trek did as a TV show. That is to say, I can’t put exactly into words the effect it had on me--but I can say that it made me want to go out and buy a ton of fan-art, and immediately start pondering which quotes I’m going to get tattooed on what parts of my body. It immediately rose above being a piece of fiction, and instantly became a part of my life.
When I first saw this book on the shelves at Target, I have to admit, I wasn’t interested. (Which, perhaps coincidentally, is how I was the first time I watched Back to the Future; I put off watching my dad’s VHS copy of it for months, and I don’t know why. Then, as soon as I watched it, it was instantly my favorite movie.) I had read Fangirl, and loved it, but didn’t see the need to read this entire book.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Carry On is an extension of Fangirl (BUT you do not need to read Fangirl in order to enjoy Carry On. They're completely separate stories). In Fangirl, the main character, Cath, is obsessed with a fictional book-and-movie series about a wizard named Simon Snow. She loves cosplaying as the characters and writing fanfiction about it to share on the internet. Fangirl included excerpts of Cath’s fanfiction, which I wasn’t crazy about at the time, since it didn’t seem to add much to the actual story we were reading, which was Cath’s journey trying to fit in at college, without her sister to rely on.
So when I saw that Rainbow Rowell had written an actual entire Simon Snow novel, my first thought was that it was super cool she was making the universe that extensive. My second thought was that this book would just be Cath’s fanfiction, which I didn’t enjoy that much.
Thankfully, the good people at Goodreads saved me from that horrible misconception! As it turns out, Carry On is NOT a piece of fanfiction about a fictional story that only exists within a fictional universe. (Trust me, I LOVE fanfiction, but that might just be TOO meta to wrap my head around! That, and I didn’t like Cath’s writing style that much, though I did love Rowell’s third-person narration style in Fangirl.) Carry On is meant to be the stand-alone, official canon story of Simon Snow. After reading a bunch of fabulous reviews, I decided to order it on Amazon and give it a try.
That was the best decision I made all year.
I’ll admit, the length intimidated me a bit at first. You may be surprised to learn that, though I LOVE reading and writing, and do both all the time, I struggle with super long books. I generally enjoy books in the 200-300 page range. Sometimes I’m cool with books under 200 pages. Now, Fangirl was over 400 pages and I’d loved that, so I already kind of knew that I was willing to make an exception for Rainbow Rowell. Still, I was wondering when I’d have time to read a book over 500 pages long.
It didn’t matter when I’d have time, because I somehow finished it in one day. I could. not. stop. reading!!!!!!
Guys, I have SO MANY GOOD THINGS to say about this book. So get ready! Beware, though, there might be mild spoilers! I won’t give away any major plot twists though.
First, let’s talk about how real all the characters felt. I wanted Penny to be my real-life best friend. I admired her intelligence, her no-nonsense attitude, and her amazing sense of humor. I especially loved how she was never afraid to insert herself into any situation.
Nowadays, there is so much focus on the “powerful female protagonist” without much thought as to what that actually means. A girl doesn’t need to beat up a million bad guys to be amazing. And she ESPECIALLY doesn’t need to act like “one of the dudes.” What I love about Penny is that she is constantly so unapologetically HERSELF. She’s a little like me--loud, goofy, and a little invasive--but she never apologizes for being that way. And she never needs to. She knows who the important people in her life are. Penny is everything I wish I could have been at 18, and she’s a fantastic role model for teen girls.
I have a picture of Penny now hanging on my office wall, right next to the mirror, so that she can inspire me every morning while I’m doing my before-work writing sprints.
I’d also like to talk about Agatha’s character a bit. I actually disagree with a lot of other reviewers’ opinions on Agatha. Many people have said she’s annoying, she’s useless to the plot, or that she’s written as a flat, misogynistic stereotype. I couldn’t disagree more. Agatha is important. Agatha is struggling internally just like the rest of the characters, but she’s struggling differently. While Simon considers his magic to be his sole motivation, Agatha feels trapped in this world she doesn’t want to be in.
It was easy to see her relationship with Simon failing from a million miles away. A lot of people will say that’s because she’s not good enough for him or something, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re wrong for each other because they want different things. Agatha doesn’t like the world of magic, and wants to be normal like her friends back home, but is under tremendous pressure from her parents to be an amazing mage like the rest of the family. I really appreciate that [SPOILER ALERT], at the end, Agatha chooses to take her own path. I found her to be empowering in that way--not even something as powerful as magic or family influence could hold her down from being who she wants to. Go Agatha!
Now, I really need to talk about one of the most important parts of the book: Simon and Baz’s relationship. It is so brilliant, for a million reasons. To understand why, first we’ll need to go back to Fangirl.
In Fangirl, Cath writes slash fiction about Simon and his roommate/nemesis, Baz, falling in love with one another. It’s understood that, in the canon Simon Snow universe (which did not exist in the real world yet at the time that Fangirl came out, but does exist now), Simon and Baz were not in a relationship with each other, or at least weren’t yet.
I’m going to be totally honest. I have a lot of feelings on slash fiction. And those feelings are that it doesn’t get the respect it deserves. If you’re not familiar with slash fiction, it’s fanfiction that puts two established characters from someone else’s work in a same-sex relationship with each other.
It is written primarily by women and the LGBT community--in other words, people whose voices are incredibly underrepresented in film, TV, literature, and the overall media. Nowadays, we have reboots and retellings taking over TV and Hollywood, like JJ Abrams’ Star Trek remake or the BBC’s modern-day retelling of Sherlock Holmes. However, just like their original counterparts, these new works are created by men, with giant studio budgets, who often like to make fun of the fanfiction that women write and share completely for free. Yet, these remakes themselves are nothing more than fanfiction--a new take on someone else’s work.
Often, when fans write slash fiction, it’s because they’re trying to create more positive LGBT representation in the media. But a lot of opinion still seems to be that these writers are “trying to make everyone gay” to push some kind of liberal agenda, and many professional writers, directors, and producers find it anywhere from silly to annoying to threatening. Meanwhile, nearly all culturally significant characters remain stuck in canon heterosexual romances.
But that’s what blew me away about Carry On; it totally subverted this norm. Cath’s fanfiction from Fangirl could easily have been reduced to frivolous slash fantasies, that no author would ever dare actually make canon.
But Rainbow Rowell does it. She does it.
Sorry if this is a spoiler, but if you’ve read any other reviews on this book at all, I’m sure you know this already. Simon and Baz actually end up together.
About a third of the way through the book, it’s revealed that Baz has been secretly in love with Simon for years, but has never been able to do anything about it, for a variety of reasons--such as their families being enemies, Simon being in a relationship with Agatha, and Baz’s father not accepting that he’s gay.
The build-up of their relationship is beautiful. You see them as enemies, but you can tell right away that there’s something different about them. It’s pretty obvious that they don’t actually hate each other, and are just acting so mean to each other because it’s what their families expect of them.
But their relationship is more than just adorable--and trust me, adorable doesn’t even BEGIN to describe them. Their relationship, in the context of the fanfiction of Fangirl, and then the canon work of Carry On, is a statement in favor of female and LGBT writers. But then, it’s even more than that--it IS the positive LGBT representation that fans have been needing for decades.
I’ll briefly touch on a couple negative things as well. I usually don’t include negatives of books that I like, but since I just spent over 1,500 words raving like crazy about this book, I think it’s strong enough to take it.
I wish we got more of Penny’s relationship with her boyfriend, Micah. I feel like their plot was just totally dropped, and I’d like to know more about them. Penny never seemed to care about Micah much, even though she mentions she wants to propose to him. So I would’ve appreciated a little more development of their relationship, or at least to see them interact in some way.
I wish Simon would admit that he is bisexual. He spends a lot of the second half of the book going back and forth in his head, wondering, “Am I gay or not gay?” I wish anyone had been able to tell Simon that he doesn’t have to be attracted to only one gender. (And I feel like that’s the kind of thing Penny would tell him. I wish she had.) Especially because he’s really interested in Agatha at the beginning, but then definitely falls in love with Baz after he and Agatha break up.
It would be nice, since bisexual representation in books, movies, TV, etc. is almost nonexistent. (Even in shows like Orange is the New Black, where like over half of the characters are bisexual, they don’t even describe themselves that way.) But I’m hoping that, if a sequel happens--which has been hinted at!!--that Simon will have this realization then.
And just a quick warning, if you haven’t read any other reviews yet--if you don’t like the first 150 pages or so, don’t worry. (I did like those pages, but I heard a lot of other people didn’t.) They’re very similar to Harry Potter, and you may start to worry that this book’s going to be a Harry Potter spinoff. But it’s not. Keep going, and you’ll be glad you did--the story goes in an entirely different direction. (But the world is similar to that of Harry Potter, with the kids being at magic school. I don’t have a problem with that. Harry Potter’s been around for 20 years now. Of course other writers are going to set stories in wizard schools.)
So I know I went on for a really long time, and spent this entire review talking at length about the characters and their relationships and their cultural impacts. I didn’t even really get a chance to get into the magic, or the adventure the characters go on avenging Baz’s mom’s death, or the quest Simon has to go on as the Chosen One to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. But that’s probably because I’ve always focused more on character development when I’m reading (or writing) a book. So I’ll leave the plot reviews to more plot-based readers!
In conclusion, if you couldn’t tell already, I highly recommend this book to everyone. Please read it.
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