Fangirl contains excerpts from a work of fanfiction, and Rowell has developed the basic idea of that fanfiction into a novel. The star is Simon Snow, a magician who is supposed to be the Chosen One, but has a terrible time controlling his magic. He goes to a special boarding school for magicians where he rooms with a vampire named Baz. Simon and Baz have been enemies since they met and they're both convinced that one of them won't come out of this relationship alive. But in their final year, Baz doesn't show up in the fall and Simon is super jumpy, expecting him to turn up unexpectedly at any moment. He's already having problems with his girlfriend, he receives a strange ghostly visitor, and is now convinced that his missing roommate is surely up to something.
Part mystery and part romance, this fantasy story is a departure for Rowell and I was honestly a little hesitant to read it. I've read Fangirl twice and though I love it, my least favorite parts were the Simon Snow passages. But obviously that is a lot different when it's fully developed into a whole novel.
Simon and Baz are great characters and I loved every moment I spent with them. Especially Baz! He's the presumably evil vampire and, despite being his nemesis, is hopelessly in love with Simon Snow. I loved the way that Baz continued to insult Simon even as he was attracted to him. Like staring at Simon thinking about how much he wanted to kiss him, and noting that "his lips are hanging open (mouth breather.)" He is dark and surly and sarcastic and I love him more than any other character I've read about recently. Simon, who is lovable in a totally different way, sought stability in his future with his girlfriend Agatha, and when she broke up with him he felt quite lost. He had no family of his own, just Agatha and his best friend Penelope. He was awkward and easily flustered, and I imagined him in constant, charming disarray.
The plot revolves around Baz's mother who was killed when he was just a baby, by the same vampires who turned him into one. Simon learns new information about this event, which leads to he and Baz working on the mystery together, bringing them ever closer. This all happened in a magic world where many of the spells are based on nursery rhymes or common sayings. Spells have more power if they are based on something that lasts over time as opposed to, say, an advertising jingle. The big enemy here is called the Insidious Humdrum, which looks like Simon Snow when he was younger, and is stealing magic from all over Britain. (Did I mention this takes place in England? The British-isms make it even better!) Other characters include the troll-like numpties, a female goatherd named Ebenezer, and the powerful Mage who is also the closest thing Simon has to a guardian. It was all deliciously fun and I would not be at all upset if it was the beginning of a longer series.
Carry On was almost a 5-star read for me, but I was a little less enthusiastic about the end. It was good in many ways but there was one major thing that I expected to be resolved and I was a little disappointed that it was just left hanging there. And I wanted more of Simon and Baz together once everything else was done. But that is really just a minor criticism in what was otherwise just as wonderful as I should expect from Rainbow Rowell. The audio narrator, Euan Mortan, did a great job of making these characters come alive.