Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In-Depth Book Review: Carry On

Rating: 3/5

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

You'd have to be living under a rock to not have heard of Rainbow Rowell's newest novel, Carry On, which has been sweeping the internet and raved about on Tumblr and other bookish websites alike.  Carry On is Rowell's companion novel to her previous success, Fangirl, which was about a college student named Cath who is obsessed with a book series called the Simon Snow series... so much so that she writes her own fanfiction series of it, titling it Carry On.  I read Fangirl earlier this year and fell in love with it. And like many, I too was intrigued by Simon Snow and his adventures, eager to know more about this series that so captured Cath's heart.  In her newest novel, then, Rowell endeavors to bring the Simon Snow series to life.  

Despite the fact that her novel bears the same title as Cath's fanfic, Rowell has clarified that Carry On is not meant to be written in Cath's voice, nor in Gemma T. Leslie's (the fictitious author of the Simon Snow series), but rather is Rowell's own interpretation of the series if she were to write it herself - so consider this Rowell's own hand at fanfiction!
 photo Fangirl graphic_zpsdqqvu9ha.jpg

Carry On holds something special, though.  Within Fangirl, the eponymous protagonist Simon Snow and his nemesis Baz Pitch are often "shipped" or romantically paired together by fans, including by Cath, inspiring her to write her own fanfiction as she makes their hopeful romantic relationship a reality in her own right. Rowell herself has made this her vision as well in writing Carry On.  And so, this novel is Simon and Baz's love story, making Carry On a rare gem in the YA fantasy genre for featuring queer representation.  

"Magic.  I miss magic when I'm away.  When I'm by myself, magic is something personal.  My burden, my secret.  But at Watford, magic is just the air that we breathe.  It's what makes me a part of something bigger, not the thing that sets me apart."

Okay, but in case you're unfamiliar with the Simon Snow series, it's essentially a reimagining of Harry Potter meets just a smidgen of Twilight.  It's about magicians, vampires, and other magical beings who attend a magical school called Watford to master the art of casting spells.  Among these students is Simon Snow, an orphan who has been prophesied as The Chosen One, and along with learning magic and keeping out of trouble, he must figure out how to defeat the Imperious Humdrum.  Sound a bit familiar?  Just for fun, here are some other similarities between Simon Snow and Harry Potter:

Elitism: Both series have a conflict that centers around a divided government, with one party believing in exclusivity within the magical world and maintaining a "pure" magical society.
Old Families = Pure bloods/Malfoy family
The Coven = Ministry of Magic

Illegal spells = Unforgivable curses.
Compulsion spells = Cruciatus Curse.

Normals = Muggles

With all of these overlaps between Simon Snow's world and Harry Potter's, it should be noted that Carry On is, in a way, its own creation in the end.  Thus, is has just as many differences from the Harry Potter series:

√  Unlike in the magical world of Harry Potter, students at Watford are allowed and even encouraged to practice magic outside of school. 

√  Students at Watford don't play Quidditch, but... football?  How ordinary.

√  Students at Watford don't appear to be sorted into separate houses/categories/etc.

√  The spells in the Simon Snow series... weeeell, they aren't as magical-sounding as the spells in the Harry Potter series, and often contain pop culture references (we'll get to this later).

√  Unlike in the world of Harry Potter where witches and wizards happily use magic for practically everything, magic seems a lot more fickle and hard to come by in Simon's world.  Rather than simply being innate, magicians worry about "wasting" magic,  and even about not having adequate magic if they marry down or have too many children to where the magic has to be divvied up.  The latter is apparently an old wive's tale, but it still makes you wonder what's behind all of this anxiety concerning not having enough magic.  Along with that, it's said that magic settles wherever a magician resides and isn't as powerful when the magician decides to relocate.  (So what, is a magician never supposed to move and just stay in one place for the rest of their life??)  There are also holes or "dead spots" in some areas where magic isn't as present, as if magic is like cell phone reception.  There doesn't seem to be as much concern over access to magic in Harry Potter.  It's just... there.

All in all, I loved how there were these similarities in Carry On that Harry Potter fans would be able to catch, yet also how Rowell crafted Carry On into its own quirky version that has so much to love about it.  It's more geared towards YA readers, with the same heart and easy humor that often characterizes YA novels.  It's about magic, but it also doesn't take itself too seriously, making it a fun, lighthearted read.  What makes Carry On stand out, though, is that it incorporates various types of representation that YA has gradually been making a push for in recent years, including race and sexuality representation, making this a sort of "super YA novel."

For one, there are actually POC characters, and the novel addresses issues of race in a really smart, nail-on-the-head way.  Take Simon's best friend Penny, who is of Indian ethnicity.  At the beginning of the novel, Simon recounts the first time he met Penny, when he told her he didn't  know people like her could be named Penny.  Meaning he didn't think people of Indian ethnicity could have non-Indian names.  Immediately, Penny had called him on his racial stereotyping and quipped, "People like me can be named whoever they want to be."  BAM.  Right there!  Defying common misconceptions.  Plus, Penny is technically mixed-race since her mother is Indian and her father is English, making her an even more racially-diverse character.  I also just love Penny because she's spunky, she takes charge, and she isn't shy about speaking out against socially-constructed gender roles. 

And it's no secret that Carry On focuses on a queer relationship, but Simon and Baz's isn't the only one.  It so happens that Penny's roommate is a pixie who has a girlfriend... and who often invites her over for fun lesbian times when Penny's not in their room, much to Penny's irritation.  Not only that, but Trixie (and the fact that she's a pixie) represents possessing an alternative femininity and sexuality as a woman - because between her and Penny, there isn't just one type of woman in Carry On.

But alright, let's get back to Simon and Baz because... how can we not?  Their love interest is the main focus of the novel, and right from the beginning there is some serious sexual tension between them!  Sure, they hate each other and have since the day they met.  It's written in their destiny, and it's assumed that one day Simon will finish Baz off for good.  But as much as they say they despise each other, they're also completely obsessed with each other.  In the beginning of the novel when Simon returns to Watford for his final year and finds that Baz is not there, he drives himself crazy, desperately needing to know where Baz is.  He And when Baz does return, he himself shares in his own infatuation.  One night, he watches Simon sleep and eventually confesses to himself that he is in love with Simon... D'AWW!  Too.  PERFECT.  There are so many other moments like this (though mostly on Baz's part) and it's so cute to read as you wait for these two bitter enemies - or so they thought - to realize that they're actually quite fond of each other.  It'll make you turn into that person who watches rom com movies and screams at the screen, "Come on, Baz!  You know you love him!  Stop putting up a wall and just let him in!"  I mean, you can't blame Baz for shutting himself off to Simon, though.  He's grown up knowing that he and Simon are fated to be enemies, that one day Simon may even end up killing him.  AND they have t share a room through their entire time at Watford.  And all the while, Baz has to continually lie to himself by keeping his feelings for Simon buried when really, every time he looks at Simon, it kills Baz that he'll never be able to have him.  No, he simply has to keep on being Simon's enemy.  It makes sense, then, why Baz constantly covers his feelings up through anger, hostility, and snide remarks.  

The other interesting thing about these two former nemeses falling in love is that, in their growing fondness for each other, there are a handful of cute, affectionate moments mixed in with dominating, irresistible moments of passion:

"If Baz thinks I'm letting him go, he's wrong.  I like him like this.  Under my thumb.  Under my hands.  Not off plotting and scheming and talking to vampires.  I've got you now, I think.  I've finally got you where I want you."

OKAAAY.  We've got some soft BDSM up in here! ;)  

In all seriousness, though, I love Simon and Baz together.  I think they perfectly balance each other out.  I especially find Baz a compelling character in how he's a vampire and thus feels that he's unworthy of being loved by Simon, and along with this, how Rowell uses Baz being a vampire to symbolize his alternative sexuality.  The comparisons between Baz's struggles with his identity as a vampire and the struggles of a queer person mirror each other in a lot of ways.  Vampires alone in the World of Mages are treated with an inferior status.  They're outcasts, spoken of as if they're amoral criminals, and largely hidden away from society in the form of their own underground hangouts.  In a way, this almost mirrors how gay men were treated in past history with similarly being viewed as criminals and hidden away in underground gay bars.  But going back to Baz.  Baz is a vampire who feels he must keep his condition a secret.  He admits his deceased mother would hate who he is, and his family would disown him.  He admits the subject of his condition is a sore spot with his father, and his father eventually suggests he see a therapist.  Like the struggles of being gay, Baz faces these very same struggles as a vampire, dealing with feeling closeted, worried about whether he'd be accepted, and having therapy suggested as a way to deal with his condition.  In the end, though, Baz comes to accept who he is, and in one of the final scenes he visits his mother's grave to tell her that she may not have wanted him to be this way, but he still wants her to know that he'll be okay.

"I know I usually come down here to tell you I'm sorry.  But I think today I want to tell you that I'm going to be alright... I just wanted to tell you that I'm going to carry on.  As I am."

Even though here he's talking about being a vampire, it's easy to see the double meaning, that he's also coming to terms with his sexuality, and this is a private conversation with his mother, telling her not to worry because he's going to be okay and he's going to continue on being who he is.  With this, Carry On proves to be a standout queer YA novel of 2015.

There's so much to love about Carry On, and for the most part I thoroughly enjoyed Rowell's fun mix of magic and cute YA romance.  However, I also find myself trying to reconcile with the aspects of it where I felt it missed its mark, mostly in Rowell's adapting a fictitious fantasy series from her previous novel into a living, breathing thing.  The biggest issue I had was I felt there wasn't a whole lot of introduction into this magical world.  If felt more like I was just plopped right in the middle of the series (which, technically, I was) with limited knowledge, and it was up to me to keep up with every new piece of information that was casually dropped now and then in this fashion: Oh yeah, by the way, just thought you should know... I felt like I was late to a party, like I missed out on the pleasure of getting to know every detail about the world that Simon Snow lives in and his entire story.  I'll admit it's a challenge, attempting to condense the Simon Snow series down to a single book as Rowell has done, because naturally if Rowell were to attempt to recreate the entire series it would take a very long time before we would be at the point where Carry On starts off, leading up to Simon and Baz's relationship.  At the same time, though, in trying to create this spin-off Simon Snow fanfic,  I think Rowell sacrificed the whole experience of being introduced to a magical world and of being swept up by it all.  

Going off of this, another aspect I took issue with is that, while I understand this novel is YA, there were times when it felt a bit too YA, which took a bit of the magic out of the novel as well.  I mean, at times it was just a bit too much to the point where it read very much like it could've been written on Tumblr.  Internet colloquialisms like "zero fucks" and "internet trolls" were thrown in, and there was even a scene where the moving photographs as seen in the Harry Potter series made a cameo, except in Carry On they were described by being compared to a GIF.  All in all, there were just one too many uses of "fuck" for my liking, and even "dick" at one point.  With all of these colloquialisms and profanities, it turned me off a bit and honestly just felt a bit cheap.

It's obvious that Carry On is very much a more modern take on a fantasy novel and that pop culture references are imbued throughout.  This is true down to the magical spells, whose names are often snippets of pop culture references.  Here are just some examples below:

"Some like it hot"

"Scooby Dooby Doo where are you?"

"Paper beats rock"

"Have a break, have a Kit-Kat"

"These aren't the droids you're looking for"

There are even spells that are referenced after popular songs, such as "Candle in the wind" and "Easy come, easy go, little high, little low..."  

Now, to me this felt a bit cheap as well, and it quickly lost me in terms of the novel attempting to create a fantasy world.  It's like having a ton of product placements show up over and over again.  After a while, it just becomes a bit too much... and it did!  It just got really old really quickly when you'd be reading and stumble upon another spell named after another cliche pop culture reference: *groan*  Not another one... The urge to eyeroll  each time one of these spells came up was strong.  And it also just makes you question, So, how did they cast this spell BEFORE Star Wars came out?  Apparently, there was an older language that was once used to cast spells, but it became more difficult to cast them as time went on, so they supplemented the old language with a newer one.  I mean, I guess that's fine... but come on, could you choose better spell names besides "Some like it hot"?!  Out of anything you could've named a spell, you had to go with "Scooby Dooby Doo, Where Are you"?  

I understand that Carry On isn't meant to be an epic fantasy novel, that it doesn't take itself too seriously and that's the charm of it.  But even so, the overkill on modernity and pop culture references was a bit too much for me at times, and I do wish there was just a little more effort put into developing Simon Snow's world that it so deserves.

Just Some Other Things

√  Simon goes back and forth between referring to his female companion as Penny and Penelope, even within the span of the same sentence.  Just... choose one!

√  What's with Baz's obsession with cars..?

√  So, how does that work with Baz's aunt Fiona being appointed a vampire hunter when Baz is a vampire himself..?  And Baz plans on moving in with her??

√  Really?  So, Simon just has invisible wings and a tail for the rest of his life and there's absolutely nothing any of his magical friends can do to fix it?  A bit random...

√  It was hard to feel Simon's pain after losing the Mage in the end because... honestly?  We didn't get exposed to much of the Mage and Simon's relationship in the book.  We weren't there to see all of the moments throughout the years that made Simon consider the Mage In fact, it felt like the Mage was barely in this book, and most of what we did see of the Mage was him being power-hungry and using Simon as a tool.  So it just felt kind of empty when he died.

√  The ending also left me kind of confused.  So, Simon's magic just runs all out?  I realize that Simon never was meant to be the Greatest Mage and that the reason why his magic didn't work like everyone else's was because he wasn't meant to have so much magic (right..?)  But either way, wouldn't he still possess magic since he was technically born to two magicians?

Okay, this one deserves its own category:
This isn't on the fault of the book itself because, well, there are bound to be characters who we can't stand... but I HATE Agatha.  
She seriously has very few redeeming qualities.  She's so pathetic in lusting after Baz.  She waits for him out on the ramparts for all to see, wearing a flowing white dress like, Here I am, Baz *flips hair into the wind* and just expects Baz to show up and sweep her off her feet like a knight in shining armor even though he has zero interest in her.  To me, Agatha totally strikes me as the bored little rich girl.  She's since grown tired of Simon, and who better to go after instead than the person she knows he would most hate to see her with.  It doesn't matter if Simon worships her and is willing to give her everything.  She doesn't want that.  She's bored with being someone's everything, and instead she sees something more exciting in Baz.  She also seems to relish in the fact that this makes Simon upset.  If that wasn't already clear by her waiting up high on the castle balcony for Baz - and everyone, including Simon - to see (Seriously, how stupid is she?), she certainly makes it obvious when she doesn't at all hide the fact that she's holding Baz's handkerchief (again, need I say pathetic?), which Simon inevitably notices and gets upset about.  Then when he questions her on whether she's interested in Baz, she doesn't even hide that either but throws it in Simon's face and responds in a spoiled fashion, "What if I am?"

That alone would've been  irritating enough.  But on top of Agatha playing Soap Opera and wanting nothing to do with Simon, she also can't stand it when he isn't automatically at her beck and call.  At one part of the book, when she finds out that Simon's been staying with Baz over winter break, she is completely appalled and just flat-out contradicts herself, spouting all these things to Simon like, "He's EVIL!" and "I ALWAYS believed you about Baz being a vampire!"  


Now you're taking Simon's side?  Really?  After you broke up with him and admitted to waiting for Baz and seeing a future with him over you?  
And then to top it off, she acts so entitled over Simon as she's leaving Baz's house.  In typical entitled rich girl fashion, she wraps her fancy scarf around her neck and says, "Come on Simon, we're leaving."  Understandably, Simon's taken back like, Uh, what..? and Agatha replies, "It's Christmas Eve.  My parents will be happy to see you."  Uh, he knows that.  He looked forward to being at your parents' house every year for Christmas Eve because they treated him like family, and in a way they were the only thing resembling a family that he had in his life.  But then YOU selfishly took that away from him as soon as you ended things with him, and you told him it wouldn't be a good idea if he came.  And now you just get to decide that he's invited again??  And you just EXPECT him to forget about everything you did and come crawling back after you like your own little puppy?!  Essentially what this scene says about Agatha is that, since Simon appeared not to have needed her for one sliver of a moment, she couldn't handle that because she's comfortable with being able to own him and having him wrapped around her finger.  Sure, she doesn't ever want to be with him, but it's still nice to know that he's there anyway to give her the attention. Oy...

Besides all of this, Agatha's kind of one of those characters who you just wonder, "Why is she even here..?"  As far as I can tell, she doesn't care about being a magician nor seems to enjoy attending Watford.  Magic doesn't seem all that important to her, and whenever Simon and Penny are in the midst of a plan - against the Humdrum or any of the other mysteries in the novel - she seems like she couldn't care less and will often patronize them or want to talk about something else.  If that wasn't enough, at the end of the novel Agatha makes it absolutely clear that she doesn't give a damn about any of this magic stuff, proving that she is the most vapid, self-absorbed character ever with this gem of a quote:

"I don't care.  I live in San Diego.  My friends work in restaurants and strip mall office buildings, and I date boys who wear dark stocking caps... and on weekends, we go to the beach.  I spend the money my parents give me on tuition and tacos."


Perhaps the worst trait in her of all, though, is the fact that she is extremely apathetic and ungrateful.  At the height of the novel's drama, one of the most under-appreciated yet courageous characters, Ebb the school goat herder, saves Agatha's life and ultimately sacrifices her own.  You'd think Agatha would be eternally grateful to Ebb for what she did for her, right?  NOPE.  In classic Agatha fashion, she is not remotely thankful or sentimental towards Ebb, and essentially, this is how Agatha repays her:  I didn't even know her, so what does it matter?!  Penny says I should honor her memory and stuff, but I think I should honor her memory by not giving a fuck and living it up in California!'

Yet again, Agatha is at the center of her own universe.
All in all, Agatha is just a stuck up, spoiled brat.  She carries an air of thinking she's better than everyone else.  She constantly acts like she's too cool to be hanging around Penny, and when Penny acknowledges her as her friend, Agatha replies coldly, "We're friends?"  In short, Agatha is that privileged, self-centered, careless girl we all knew in high school, making her the most insufferable character in this novel.

But back to the actual story...

With all of the critiques I've made, I don't want to present this review as if I didn't enjoy Carry On - because I did!  It was a fun read, with lots of mysteries and twists, and the person you would least expect turns out to be the biggest villain of all.  I also loved how the book was split into different perspectives throughout: Simon, Baz, Penny, Agatha, The Mage, and a mysterious character named Lucy...  It added a lot of depth that way and I appreciated the story being shared from different characters' points of view.  There were times when I laughed, times when I gushed, and times when I didn't want it to end.

Was I completely over-the-moon with Rainbow Rowell's newest novel like I had anticipated?  No.  There were a lot of aspects where I think it really shined, and others where I felt it didn't quite make it.  But I still think this is a book readers will enjoy.  It doesn't quite capture the same magical quality as most fantasy novels, but then again, the thing that makes Carry On stand out isn't magic.  It's the vast array of representation in its characters.  It's the focus on a queer relationship that is so often absent in the fantasy genre, paving the way for more love stories like Simon and Baz's.  Most importantly, it conveys the message that it's okay to be who you are, whether you're a vampire or in love with someone who others say you shouldn't be. 
But they're wrong, and you will carry on as you are. 

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