Simon and Baz, Penelope and Agatha, the Insidious Humdrum, the Mage, and Watford – all born in Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl – have their own story here. Simon’s origin story is similar to Harry Potter’s: he was an orphan living in the “Normal” world until age 11, when the Mage brings him to the Watford School to study magic. Now it’s Simon’s final year at Watford: the Mage has little time for him, and his roommate/enemy/suspected vampire Baz has not returned to school. The Insidious Humdrum still threatens the magical world, which is already divided between the traditional old families and the Mage’s revolutionary ideals.
Simon Snow is the main character, but Penny, Baz, and Agatha each get a turn to narrate, as does Lucy, whose identity (other than her name) isn’t immediately clear. Simon wants to enjoy his last year at Watford, but also to defeat the Humdrum once and for all; Penny (think Hermione with a rebel streak) is his (platonic) best friend and a talented magician whose parents are both professors; Agatha doesn’t want to be involved in dangerous adventures at all, and secretly prefers the Normal world, though she can’t admit it to her parents; and Baz, once he returns to Watford after an unexplained six-week absence, wants to decode the message his mother’s ghost left for him with Simon.
Carry On has plenty of pop culture references – the words “carry on” come from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – partly due to the fact that magic, in Simon Snow’s world, is based almost entirely on words: the more often certain words are used in specific combinations, the more powerful of a spell they become. Shakespeare and nursery rhymes, therefore, are quite powerful; cliches and lyrics to pop songs may be powerful for a time, but lose their power when they fall out of fashion. I enjoyed this not-so-subtle reminder of the power of language, as well as Rowell’s hat-tips to other fantasy novels: there are obvious similarities to Harry Potter, of course, but there’s also something Philip Pullman-esque about the way that adults are willing to sacrifice children in service to the what they perceive as the greater good.
Fangirl‘s Cath would be happy with the way that Simon and Baz’s relationship evolves, but I won’t say more than that here. The way that Rowell weaves Baz’s mother’s death and his being a vampire into the plot, however, is quite clever. Carry On absolutely stands on its own as a fantasy novel that anyone can enjoy, and those who liked Fangirl will definitely want to read it. While I prefer Rowell’s realistic fiction (or in the case of Landline, mostly realistic fiction with the addition of a magic-fucking-phone), I thoroughly enjoyed Carry On.