Top positive review
With Simon and Baz, Rowell gives us a gift we've all been waiting for.
Reviewed in the United States on July 8, 2018
“You’ll have to do.”
I didn’t give “Carry On” five stars just because it’s amusing, literate, gripping, and filled with fascinating young characters. This marvelous book by Rainbow Rowell, a best-selling YA author of whom I’d never heard before, has given us the gift that J.C. Rowling never did.
“Carry On” is a rather startlingly obvious take-off on Harry Potter and the world of Hogwarts. It is clearly deliberate, and part of the fun of reading it is to see how the author has tweaked every little detail to both remind us of Rowling’s epic series and to affirm that Rowell has made it entirely her own. My favorite detail is the name of the magic school itself: Watford School. For all of its medieval antiquity and mysterious changeable buildings, Watford is a bland suburb near London (with its own well-known football team). Rowell’s magical folks live entirely among the Normals. They have to: their ability to control the magic around them and within them depends entirely on their skills with human language. It is a brilliant conceit that becomes the lynchpin of the entire, page-turning story.
Simon Snow is a foundling, abandoned or orphaned as an infant. He was found by the Mage, a powerful magician who is both the headmaster of Watford and the head of the Coven—the governing body of the magical world. The Mage made Simon his heir in order to get him a place at Watford—because Simon, it turns out, is the most powerful magician ever born, and is destined to save the magical world from some terrible evil.
Simon’s best friend is Penelope Bunce: super smart, obsessive about history, fearless. His girlfriend is Agatha Wellbelove: blond, beautiful, but more interested in her horse than in her magical heritage (or in Simon, as it turns out). Simon’s archnemesis and roommate is Baz—Tyrannus Basilton Pitch-Grimm: aristocratic, brilliant, clearly up to no good. He’s been trying to kill Simon ever since they started Watford at eleven years old. Baz’s family wants to oust the Mage and return control of Watford to the old magical families. And Baz, it seems, might just be a vampire.
You see the parallels, but it’s all a bit off, and that off-ness makes it fresh and contemporary and somehow more real. These magical teens have cellphones (at home); they know pop music and films. They use lyrics from Queen to power their spells. And the thing that makes it most wonderfully off is that, right at the bright, pulsing center of this story, is an unexpected recognition of love between two boys. But only unexpected if you aren’t paying attention.
The book is set up as if it’s the last chapter in a long series. It feels like you’ve dropped into the story with no bearings, but skillful writing fills us all in on the essential facts of the past half-dozen years at Watford. And this is where it all gets so deliciously twisted: our understanding of good and evil does not entirely mesh with what we understand to be right and wrong. As the story moves forward, things only get more complicated. Simon and his friends—and this includes Baz—must ultimately decide what they have to do, whether or not it jibes with what they, as children have been taught by the adults in whom they have placed their trust all their lives.
Rainbow Rowell is s straight woman from Nebraska, and I’m a little floored at how briliantly she pulled off a gay YA story set in England. “Carry On” had its origins in “Fangirl,” one of Rowell’s best-selling YA novels, and therein one sees how, and more importantly, why it is connected to the Harry Potter world. For the legions of gay Harry Potter fans who have consistently felt cheated by J.K. Rowling’s refusal to include an LGBT character in her fictional world, Rowell has given us a pearl of great price. Rowell’s power as a highly successful author within the confines of mainstream publishing made this possible. I hope other successful mainstream writers in all genres will follow her example.