I recommend Carry On by Rainbow Rowell early and often.
It’s a book (a trilogy, actually) that doesn’t have any business being as good as it is. I went into it with low expectations - I was just looking for something to read and Rainbow Rowell was a big enough name in YA that I felt like I had to check out some of her work. I didn’t even bother with getting a physical copy; I downloaded it to my Kindle.
I stayed up all night and read the book in one sitting.
Usually I pitch the book as “gay Harry Potter” and “like fan fiction, in the best way.” For a lot of people, that’s enough of a hook to get them interested. I don’t usually describe it as being about longing, or trauma, or struggling to meet expectations. I don’t even say that it’s about friendship or falling in love or growing up, although it is very much all those things. It’s a book that both is the thing - a magical school story, a Chosen One book - and is also commenting on the thing - what are the tropes we don’t want to look at too deeply? What does it mean when we pour all our expectations onto a single person? Doesn’t the Chosen One get kind of a shitty deal being Chosen?
The book starts out very Harry stalking Draco outside the Room of Requirement.
Simon Snow is the Chosen One - the subject of not just one prophecy, but many. Baz is his rich, posh nemesis. Also, his roommate (and possibly a vampire). They’ve been feuding and very nearly (but never quite) killing each other since they were 11 years old. And then, in their 8th year, Baz doesn’t show up at the beginning of term. Simon is convinced Baz is off plotting something terrible, and insists on it loudly. No one takes the concern all that seriously because Simon’s been claiming more or less the same thing since they were first years (he hasn’t been wrong, historically speaking, but at the moment everyone has bigger problems than a plotting nemesis). Still, Simon is determine to find Baz.
Where the book really turns is on the fact that Simon can’t find Baz. He searches and he searches and he searches.
Along the way you learn things. Like, that Simon hasn’t survive this long because he’s a skilled magician - he’s not (Baz is though). Simon is great with a sword (or a blunt object, or his fists), but the real reason he’s made it to 19 years old is because he’s so full of magic that when he’s worked up enough, he goes off and destroys everything around him. Simon isn’t a precision instrument, he’s a pipe bomb - and he knows it. He’s never solved anything with finesse, so he throws himself at every problem as hard as he can.
In the course of his searching, Simon takes us to all the old haunts where he and Baz have fought. He shows us all the routines that the two of them had, the time they spent together in their classes and in their shared bedroom. At a certain point you realize that you’re 20% of the way into this book and most of what the Chosen One has been doing is telling you in excruciating detail about a boy he can’t stop thinking about.
Maybe, perhaps, this isn’t just about foiling a plot.
The other thing that all the searching does is illuminate just how incredibly lonely Simon is. He has a whip-smart best friend, and a girlfriend who is exactly the type of girlfriend a Chosen One is supposed to have, but most magicians just want things from him - to bask in the power rolling off him, to be seen with him, to be saved by him. He’s a figure to them, not a person. Baz, on the other hand, doesn’t want anything from Simon. He tells him on a regular basis that he’s the worst Chosen One to have ever been chosen. It’s the kind of thing Baz says at the moment when it’s most likely to upset Simon because he knows all Simon’s soft spots and all his ticks and exactly how to wind him up. He see’s right through Simon.
Having a nemesis, it turns out, is very intimate.
I recommend Carry On a lot, but I very rarely talk about the specific, particular things I love about it. That feels like showing someone a picture of me without my skin on: grotesquely bare.
There’s this bit I love -
Simon is searching for Baz in the catacombs. He ties a rope to a statue at the entrance to keep himself from getting lost, then sets about searching. He tries every spell he can think of, but revealing spells are tricky and he isn’t good with words. The magic system is reliant on words - it runs on diction and metaphor and turns of phrase. It’s here that Simon tells us he didn’t talk much as a kid; it’s not uncommon for kids who grew up in foster care like he did. For him, it was easier to just take what he wanted and hit anyone who was hurting him.
Simon finds a lot of things while he’s searching the catacombs, but he doesn’t find Baz. The chapter ends with this line: “Every night I turn back when I get to the end of my rope.”
The first time I read that, it stopped me in my tracks. What a turn of phrase in a book about words. A perfectly placed double entendre. Yes, literally there’s a rope but also: He runs himself into the ground with searching, going and going until he can’t anymore.
It’s been years since I first read it but I still think about that line. It feels so beautifully succinct to me. It means nothing and it means everything.
he does this again and again
I turn back
there’s no exit, just pushing as deep as you can
when I get to the end of my rope
so many quiet, violent ends at the end of a rope.
There’s the story happening on the surface, and then there’s the river of emotion rushing underneath. I get swept away in it every single time.
Any Way The Wind Blows, the third book in the Simon Snow trilogy, is out now.
I definitely cried.
Sweet Creature by Harry Styles.
We released an episode on The Bi Pod about “problematic” representations of bisexuality (and why that’s more complicated than people might want to admit).
Carry On was previously rec’d on Casually Obsessed in the Red, White & Royal Blue episode.