No one can accuse Rainbow Rowell of being lazy. Or un-inventive. Or un-awesome…but I digress. In the past four years she’s published five novels, three young adult and two regular adult. She’s written about 1980s misfits, the first year of college, and falling in love through technology. Yes, she always writes about love and relationships (among other things), but she approaches the subject from a unique angle each time. As her first foray into the fantasy adventure genre, Carry On proves that she’s only becoming more ambitious.
I’ve really enjoyed trying to explain the premise of Carry On to people, including a random girl at NerdCon. If you haven’t read Fangirl, it’s confusing. Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, is heavily involved in the fan community for Simon Snow, a series invented by Rainbow to occupy a similar space as Harry Potter in Cath’s world. Fangirl includes short passages from the Simon Snow books, as well as snippets of Cath’s fan fiction. A key component of the fan fiction is that Cath writes about Simon falling in love with his archenemy Baz. (Yes, there are serious Harry Potter/Draco Malfoy undertones, except that Baz is also a vampire.) Then Rainbow became so interested in Simon and Baz that she decided to write her own book about them. As I said, confusing.
Luckily nerds tend to like things a little complicated. Wrapping our brains around the relationships between a fictional book series, fan fiction about that series, and a real-life standalone book is our idea of fun. (Hopefully when I say our, I’m not just talking about me. The verging-on-mob scene before Rainbow’s signing at NerdCon would suggest that others share my feelings.) All this to say that I was fully on board to read about teenage wizards falling in love. And read about them I did, but to my surprise, the romance was secondary to the plot more so than any other Rainbow Rowell novel. I have no problem admitting that after a certain point I was asking, “But when will there be kissing?!”
Simon Snow is the Chosen One who has no idea how to fulfill his role. Rainbow has discussed in interviews how she’s read many Chosen One stories over the years, and Carry On was an opportunity to explore her opinions about the whole concept. As she said to The Toast, “How would it really feel to have a strange old man take you away from everything you’ve ever known because he needed you to fight a war that started before you were even born?” The mages in Carry On are more in touch with the normal world than, for instance, the wizarding world of Harry Potter. While allowing Rainbow to make her signature pop culture references, this connection also gives her some freedom to critique the genre in which she’s simultaneously participating.
As a reader, I found the critique to be the most successful aspect of Carry On. Rainbow is an astute observer of storytelling patterns, and she proved in Fangirl that she understands how people can be critical of something while still loving it immensely. The Simon and Baz relationship originated from the idea of finding romantic subtext where it’s probably not intended by the creator. The romantic aspects of Carry On sometimes felt more subtextual than I would have liked, but since it’s Rainbow Rowell, there are still moments worthy of a swoon.