Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. Read by Euan Morton. MacMillan Audio for St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015.
Fangirl was Rowell’s captivating look at a highly introverted geek girl trying to make it in college. Said geek girl, Cath, spends most of the book working on an unofficial series ender to a Harry Potter-like series, starring Simon Snow and his rival Baz, the Draco-like vampire he falls in love with. Carry On basically is that novel. We join Simon Snow, the Chosen One and the Mage’s Heir, for his final year at the Watford School for Magicks.
I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never been a reader or writer of fanfic myself, nor has the idea of a Draco/Harry pairing in that universe ever made much sense to me. But I am a sucker for Harry Potter and a sucker for a well-written, convincing romance, and Carry On caters to both of those interests in spades. It works quite well as a story on its own, whether or not you’ve read either Fangirl or any of the Harry Potter books. At the same time, as a conversation around Harry Potter, it speaks volumes – a “but what if instead?” on top of the standard “what if” that makes speculative fiction.
The story opens as Simon Snow is heading back to Watford by regular public transportation after his usual grim magic-less, friendless summer in yet another foster home. He’s going over the list of things that he doesn’t allow himself to think about when not at Watford – his favorite people, including his best friend Penelope Bunce and his girlfriend, Agatha, as well as the Mage – though he’s less sure of his feelings about the Mage now that he’s almost done – and the delicious, plentiful food at Watford, so different from the scarcity of his foster homes. But things are changing at Watford. His roommate, Baz (officially Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch,) is missing, and though they’ve never gotten along and Baz has tried to kill him more than once, Simon is freaked out by his unexplained absence and can’t stop looking for him. His girlfriend, Agatha, is growing distant. The Mage, never either forthright or warm with Simon, is focused only on his dealings with the old-style Families who oppose his reforms than in their on-going quest to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. Penny, of course, wants to make a plan themselves, right away, but Simon is distracted by the appearance of the ghost of Baz’s mother, who appears with a message for him to pass on to Baz.
The story is told in the voices of the different characters – Simon, then Penny, Agatha and Baz. There’s also the voice of a ghost, Lucy, who tells stories from the past meant for Simon to hear. Each of these characters has so very much to say. Penny is uniquely herself while being a mix of Hermione’s brains and Ron’s loyalty and large but less prestigious wizarding school. (Penny’s siblings all have names beginning with the letter P, but mixed Western and Indian in origin – her mother’s name is Mitali, though at one point it’s made clear that Penny’s great-grandmother’s generation was the last to speak Hindi.) Agatha fights – mostly with apathy initially- against the arrogance that the magical world represents to her and the passive, supportive role she’s expected to play as the girlfriend of the Chosen One. Baz struggles still with the loss of his mother, who died trying unsuccessfully to defend him from the vampires. Narrator Euan Morton does a great job bringing all of these characters to life through their voices, too, from Simon’s lower-class, less eloquent speech to Baz’s upper-class polish, Penny’s middle class London and Ebb the goatherd’s comfortable country accents. With all the unique first-person narratives, this might have been a good place for multiple narrators, but Morton really pulls it off.
I cared about these characters so, so much. The story, playing on the trope of stories where you know what’s going to happen and are reading to find out how it happens – does something different entirely. The romance took hold of me and sucked me right under with it – Baz and Simon really earned even more of a happily-ever-after than they got here. (Noting for those concerned about such things that while steamy, there’s nothing in the romance here I’d find inappropriate for middle schoolers interested in a romance-focused fantasy, though the language is atrocious.) As a devoted Harry Potter fan, there were so many details about things that are never mentioned in the other books, from Simon’s difficulty using words and dealing with physical affection because he wasn’t raised in a family to details of food prep without house elves and how students shower. Sometimes it really is the little things! I wish I could say something more critical about it, just so I’d feel less gushing – but really, every time I was listening and felt like, “Hmm… it’s felt really character-focused for a while now. Is it going to be too slow for plot-based readers?” something exciting would happen.
I’m just finishing up my second time through listening to this, and I almost never reread things straight away. Have you read this, too? What did you think?