Rainbow Rowell’s new novel Carry On does not begin with something like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to The Scarlet Letter, about the customs house where the scarlet letter was found among the documents of Jonathan Pue. It does not begin with a preface like Laurie King’s for The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, in which a mysterious trunk is delivered to her, containing the manuscripts of one Mary Russell. Although Rowell originally wrote about the character of Simon Snow in her novel Fangirl, about a college student named Cath who writes Harry Potter fanfic (and slash fanfic at that), she is not pretending that Carry On is written either by Cath or by Fangirl’s made-up author Gemma T. Leslie. Rowell takes credit for fleshing out the story of Simon Snow and his friends, a story in conversation with other fictions currently aimed at young adults, about what it means to be chosen, or talented, or to have parental expectations weighing heavy on the choices you can make about your own life.
The best part of the conversation, as with the Latinate spells in the Harry Potter books, is the spells Rowell comes up with, from songs, sayings, and nursery rhymes. They are always shown in bold, to make them stand out from ordinary conversation, as when Simon’s roommate Baz says “what’s wrong, Snow? Cat got your tongue?” and Simon flinches, because “Cat got your tongue is a wicked spell.” Simon’s mentor, The Mage, is eccentric because “he’d rather cast A little bird told me than use his mobile.” Simon’s friend Penny casts “Some like it hot!” to melt butter onto a scone.
We see Simon and Penny trying to come up with new spells for a school assignment, and we learn that “the best new spells are practical and enduring. Catchphrases are usually crap; mundane people get tired of saying them, then move on. (Spells go bad that way, expire just as we get the hang of them.) Songs are dicey for the same reason.” When the song “Candle in the Wind” comes on the radio, at one point, Simon thinks that “Candle in the wind is a dangerous spell. The boys at school say you can use it to give yourself more, you know, stamina. But if you emphasize the wrong syllable, you’ll end up starting a fire you can’t put out. An actual fire. I’d never try it, even if I had call for it. I’ve never been good with double entendres.”
Penny’s mother is known for inventing a spell called “The lady’s not for turning” which we learn is “still an incredibly useful spell in combat.” Simon once cast “Hair of the dog” on his friend Agatha but “when he casts metaphors, they go viciously literal.” Baz casts “April showers” on some wilted flowers to make them bloom again. A common spell for household pests turns out to be “Ladybird ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire, and your children are gone.” The spell for “sweeping away practical jokes and flights of fancy” is “Nonsense!”
There are spells that are restricted because they compel someone to do something against his or her will, like “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” The ultimate spell of the entire story, of course, is “Simon says.”
Rowell’s humor kept me going through this young adult story. The two heroes, Simon and Baz, are fixated on their dead mothers. The two girl sidekicks, Penny and Agatha, are trying hard to get out from under their live mothers’ spheres of influence. They decide to try to work together after Baz’s mother’s ghost appears to Simon during the short period “every twenty years” when “dead people can talk to the living if they have something that really needs to be said.” Baz is afraid that his mother would disapprove of the way his father let him live after the vampire attack that killed his mother and turned him into a vampire, although a secret one who only drinks the blood of animals. Penny finds out more about The Mage, back in his school days when he was called Davy.
Finally, Baz and Simon quit fighting their attraction and fall into each others’ arms, which makes Simon say that now they can go after the evil “Humdrum” together and “maybe we can help everyone see that we’re better off uniting…” to which Baz responds “And then the whole World of Mages will see how much better it is to work together, and we’ll sing a song about co-operation.”
Penny and Agatha are initially dubious about the truce between Baz and Simon. Penny isn’t sure they should leave Simon at Baz’s manor house, where she says “the vibe here is very, “Let’s kill a virgin and write a great Led Zeppelin album.” Simon proves more than capable of taking care of himself, though, right up until the moment where he sacrifices part of himself to save his friends.
Even Simon’s sacrifice, done in fine heroic style, is undercut by the epilogue to the story, in which Simon is left with dragon’s wings and a cartoon devil’s tale. Every morning Penny casts “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” but it doesn’t last all day. Baz doesn’t know “that robot spell” so he casts “There’s nothing to see here” which makes Simon protest that “people are going to be running into me all day.” Despite minor inconveniences, though, Simon Snow feels that he has gotten “a happy ending—even if it isn’t the ending I ever would have dreamt for myself, or hoped for.” And Baz and Penny are getting tea: “Baz looks up from his phone. ‘The Chosen One’s making us tea the Normal way,’ he says.”
Carry On is a charming metafictional novel with an appropriately derivative title, although it’s not clear to me whether it’s from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (“Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters”) or Kansas (“Carry on, my wayward son, there’ll be peace when you are done”).