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12.15.2015

Carry On [book review]


I have major beef with this book. Book beef, if you will.

I have enjoyed other books by Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor & Park was delightful. Fangirl was fun. Even Attachments was fine with me. But Carry On just didn’t sit well.

Now, before I go on, let me warn you that I’m totally going to ruin this book for you. If you plan on reading it regardless and don’t want to have any idea what happens, you should probably stop reading now. In other words: SPOILER ALERT.


Carry On is Rainbow Rowell’s version of a “chosen one” story–she says that much herself in her author’s note. Her character, Simon Snow, is a super-powerful “mage” (aka, wizard) destined to save the World of Mages from “the Insidious Humdrum,” a villain that sucks magic from a place. He believes he is an orphan–though we find out in the course of the story who his parents are. Snow attends Watford, a school of magic, and has an enemy named Baz, who also happens to be his roommate. Baz is rich, from an old magical family, evil, and a vampire. With me so far?

In the book, Simon and Baz team up to discover who murdered Baz’s mother, former Watford headmistress, who died in a vampire attack on the school back in the day. They end up fighting the Humdrum (who turns out to be an echo of sorts of Simon himself, created when Simon uses his own too-much-for-the-magical-atmosphere powers), killing the Mage (the leader of their world, who turns out to be the real bad guy of the story and Simon’s dad), and kissing each other all over the place. In the end, Simon gives up his power to get rid of the Humdrum, the Mage is gone, and Simon and Baz are boyfriend and boyfriend instead of enemies.

Ok, now let’s talk about what’s wrong here. There’s a lot, but I’m going to hone in on three issues I have with the book.

FOR THE FIRST 50 PAGES OR SO, CARRY ON READ LIKE A COMPLETE HARRY POTTER RIPOFF.


There were just way too many details that were the same–it felt wrong. A prophesy says Simon is destined to fight the Humdrum and save the World of Mages (a prophecy in Harry Potter says Harry is destined to fight Voldemort one day, too). Simon goes to Watford at age 11 (the same age Harry goes to Hogwarts). The Mage himself came to tell Simon, who lives in an orphanage, that he was magical (Dumbledore sought out Tom Riddle in his orphanage to tell him the same thing). Baz is an evil rich kid from a long line of power who hates Simon on principle (hey there, Draco Malfoy). Baz’s history–what happened to his mother–also connects him to Simon–through his dad, the Mage–though readers (and the characters themselves) don’t know that at first (so he’s really Draco mixed with a little bit of Snape, though we’re talking about murder here rather than love). There is a crucible that pairs up roommates (much like the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter puts kids into houses). Mages use birds to send messages (wizards use owls). The story takes place in England (ditto for Harry Potter). Nonmagical folk are called “Normals” (in Harry Potter, they’re “Muggles”). There’s just too much similarity there for my taste.

THERE’S TOO MUCH BACKSTORY THAT WE WEREN’T AROUND FOR.


Simon’s already fought dragons, escaped from the Humdrum, and been in plenty of scuffles with Baz. He has seven years of adventures under his belt. Not to mention seven years of knowledge about the World of Mages. But the reader knows about none of it. We learn about some of it when it’s mentioned by the characters in the story, but we didn’t get to experience it with them or have any period of discovery about the World of Mages.

Now, there’s nothing really wrong with that situation in and of itself. There are plenty of excellent books where you’re thrown into the action and have to figure out the backstory and setting as you go. But in this case, it felt like my lack of knowledge prevented me from really connecting with the characters and the story. I just couldn’t bring myself to care as much about Simon, Baz, or the World of Mages as I think I needed to for the story to work.

What Rowell has written is the final installment of a long story–in other words, the last book in a series. Except, in this case, the rest of the series doesn’t actually exist. We only have that last book. But that’s not enough to draw the reader in, to make me really care about what happens. I spent too much time wondering and asking questions about what had already happened–the characters kept mentioning those events, so they felt important, but further detail was never given. It was like sitting at a party with a group of friends who keep laughing their heads off at inside jokes and telling stories about a time when you weren’t around.

THE STORY ITSELF FELT LIKE A SECONDARY ELEMENT–AN AFTERTHOUGHT.


There were several things that were never explained (what really happened to Lucy? How did she end up trapped between the world of the living and the world of the dead?) and a few things that never made sense (Natasha’s death was collateral damage, not murder… so what’s with all this “find my killer and give me peace” stuff?). There were holes upon holes.

It felt like the point, Rowell’s whole goal, wasn’t to write a story; it was to write gay characters. The tension between Simon and Baz, their thoughts about each other, and their eventual romantic relationship was more detailed and believable than anything else. It felt like Rowell focused on that and just added the story in around them. And it made for poor reading.

I want a writer to craft a good story. A good story naturally has good characters–but both are necessary. Good characters without a good story just don’t work.

All in all, I was very unimpressed with Carry On. I know a lot of people will take issue with that, because the book was very well received. But I just can’t get on board with this one.

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