Carry On by Rainbow Rowell: Challenging ‘The Chosen One’ Trope
‘Chosen One’ Simon Snow is the most powerful mage in the world, prophesied to rid the world of a great evil, except he has little to no control over his powers, making him ‘go off’ in magical explosions. His vampire ‘nemesis’ and roommate of around 7 years, Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch is the son of deceased Watford Headmistress, and is seemingly out to make Simon’s life hell.
*Warning, this article contains spoilers for the book Carry On by Rainbow Rowell*
Carry On is the first YA fantasy novel by author Rainbow Rowell, released in 2015 after the protagonists featured as fictional characters in Rowell’s novel Fangirl. Carry On takes place in Watford School of Magicks and features four students in their final year of school, Agatha, Penelope, Simon and Baz. The story features multiple prominent POC, including Penelope and Baz, as well as LGBTQ+ characters; the protagonists Simon and Baz, who are on a mission to save the Magickal world. We learn about the World of Mages through complex side stories as Simon, Baz and Penny try to figure out why black holes are appearing in the magical atmosphere.
I’ve reread this book for what must be the eighth time in the past 4/5 years, and I think the reason I love it so much is how this story contrasts with other stories within the genre; Carry On really challenges the ‘Chosen One’ trope, going against most of the things that the trope is known for. The traditional love triangle is much more complicated than two boys in love with the same girl, good vs evil is much less black and white and the story actually explores how unfair life is for the Chosen One. The characters even get therapy at the end of the book to process all of the trauma that the events of the story put them through.
The protagonist also falls in love with the character who would typically be the antagonist - his ‘nemesis’ roommate. However, I feel the need to make it clear that this isn’t just a love story, it’s a “chosen one” story that challenges the whole genre.
Simon is the typical hero, he’s ‘The Chosen One’, abandoned at birth and raised in the care system (tragic backstory that prevented him from knowing who he was until he was 11), has exceptional power and is dating the most beautiful girl in school, Agatha. He is the heir to the current Headmaster who essentially rules the World of Mages and even even has an ‘arch-nemesis’ (and I’m not talking about the one that’s actually trying to destroy the World of Mages). His roommate, Baz Pitch, with great magical talent, wealth and a powerful family just happens to also be a vampire that hates Simon and his mentor. Baz went as far as to try to steal Simon’s girlfriend Agatha just to piss him off. Agatha doesn’t really want to be ‘the girl’ that waits for the golden boy to save the world. She doesn’t even want power, but she finds herself actually quite drawn to Baz at first. But Simon’s nemesis doesn’t actually hate him, it’s quite the opposite - and he doesn’t even want to steal his girlfriend. Baz just wants to avenge his mother’s death - and steal Agatha’s boyfriend. Simon’s mentor is also quite a dick. The one thing that does follow the typical aspects of the trope is that he has a ridiculously smart and powerful best friend, Penny. Penelope is talented, witty, self-assured and the best best-friend Simon could have.
In Carry On, the bad guys and the good guys are difficult to differentiate. The character’s morals and politics are a grey area rather than black and white good vs bad. Baz’ deceased mother is a character we all grow to admire through Baz’s perspective, but her views meant that she restricted those less powerful from accessing education, and the way she viewed other magical species is what instilled much of Baz’s own self-loathing. He knows that she would have killed him for being turned into a vampire if she hadn't died first. The Mage (the current headmaster) believes that everyone with any ounce of magic deserves to attend the school, but his views became extremist in his search for ‘The Chosen One’; abandoning his son and expecting him to fight until his death, using both him and his mother as tools for creating a hero. Though, Simon’s mother had never actually believed that he was necessarily a bad person, even after her death.
“He’s still more good than bad, I think. It just goes to show how much of both a person can hold.”
One thing I loved about the book is how the characters dealt with their life-threatening and traumatising situations. They acted irrationally and at times immaturely, but it completely makes sense because they’re young and going through hell. They aren’t just expected to deal with what they’re going through; nobody ever questions why they’re blowing up suddenly or arguing all of the time. They act like real teenagers. Once the story is over, they just don’t ride off into the sunset. These characters have to go to therapy to help them move on with their lives and deal with their trauma in a healthy way, which isn’t promoted enough in fiction.
Carry On also deals with coming to terms with one’s own sexuality and the idea of rushing to label one’s sexuality. Carry On puts emphasis on how labelling it, figuring it out and accepting it isn’t something that needs to be rushed - Simon doesn’t feel rushed to label himself, he just realises he is attracted to a boy and accepts it, no lashing out or denial. His therapist even reassures him that it’s not something he has to worry about right now, amongst his other trauma he needs to process.
I think the reason I love Carry On so much and always come back to it is how messy and realistic the characters are. Simon reminds me of myself when I first read the book as a questioning 15-year-old, oblivious to my own feelings, confused and unsure of how to manage my own feelings. I also used to write lists of my favourite things to keep me going. I related a lot to Baz once I had figured out my sexuality; I was closeted and desperately tried to stop anyone from figuring out how I was feeling. At first I didn’t really understand Agatha, but as I’ve gotten older and learned to remove myself from toxic situations, I’ve realised that sometimes certain people or situations just aren’t good for you, even if the people aren’t necessarily bad. She felt uncomfortable in her situation, and sure she made some bad decisions (pursuing your boyfriend’s enemy is never a good idea), but she just wanted to be wanted, and not to be the ‘prize’ for the hero. She didn’t feel happy in her situation and so she ultimately left. Most teenagers make mistakes, including Simon and Baz themselves, but Agatha did something it took me a long time to do. Learning you’re allowed to leave people and situations and people that make you unhappy is one of the most important lessons anyone can learn. Penelope’s family have very strong political ideals about not letting those less powerful learn at Watford, their politics even causes family disputes. These characters are open about being a mess and living complicated and unfair lives. I mean most of us are a mess, but nobody really talks about it.
Baz even admits that he loves that Simon is as tragic as he is. It’s endearing to read about such complex characters, their views on what is good and bad, the way they perceive themselves and their actions. They don’t read like cringey teenagers that are clearly written by somebody who forgot how teenagers act and communicate, as a lot of YA novels do. Rainbow Rowell really gets teenagers, and she also nails writing British characters - I genuinely questioned if she was actually British after reading it for the first time. I was slightly younger than the characters when I first read the book, and as I get older I just find that I understand them more and more, which usually isn’t the case for books I enjoyed when I was younger.
Despite the story centering around a group of teenagers, they’re all going on their own journeys by themselves. The four keep a lot of secrets from each other, they don’t really have the whole ‘found family’ vibe that a book centering around a group of teenagers usually has. The four of them never really really communicate their feelings to one another and hold a lot back. Penny doesn’t really talk about her family problems, Agatha never tells anyone about feeling like she doesn’t belong. Simon doesn’t even like talking about his childhood with Penny, his best friend. He doesn’t even really like talking about it with Baz. Baz tries his hardest to never let anyone know that he’s upset, even though it’s completely understandable with what he’d gone through. They all struggle alone, so it’s really interesting to find out about them from each of their perspectives.
Simon and Baz’ dynamic is an extremely entertaining one. They hardly know how to act around each other, and their dialog is always a complete shift in tone each time. At first they’d be fighting each other, and then something else, and then they’d be joking around like they’re best friends. Sometimes they’re flirting and the rest of the time they’re bickering. I particularly loved that after some sort of chaos ensued, the mood would completely shift and they’d always be either really sweet and wholesome or hilarious and teasing. Their chemistry is so addictive, as you never really know how they would act next. Their relationship is a unique one, despite it starting out as the typical ‘enemies to lovers’ trope. They bond a lot during their sadness, but they never try to ‘fix’ each other. They don’t always agree, but they accept their differences and try to support each other as much as they can. Simon and Baz’s developing relationship is intense and turbulent, they found each other in a world constantly at war whilst dealing with immense loss. Simon never had a family, and instead became an instrument for war and politics, and Baz is expected to carry on his family traditions after losing his mother - and soul - at an extremely young age.
“I was eleven years old, and I’d lost my mother, and my soul, and the crucible gave me you.”
When I first started reading the book, I had no idea if Simon and Baz would even get together. I had heard of the book after reading Fangirl, by the same author. In Fangirl, Simon and Baz exist in a fictional book series, where they are not only two straight characters, but they are also real enemies. The protagonist Cath, along with a bunch of other fans ship Simon and Baz, and so they write fanfiction about them. My curiosity was piqued, so I Google searched Simon and Baz, and found the book Carry On around six months after its initial release. I had heard nothing online about the book, and the description and book cover don’t give much away at all (or so I thought). Since you don’t hear the story from Baz’s POV for over half of the book, I started to doubt that anything would ever happen between them. I thought “If they’re love interests, wouldn’t Baz have already appeared in the story by now?”, I even began to doubt that he’d ever show up. So after 28 chapters of reading about Simon thinking about him and searching for him, Baz dramatically entering and quickly letting the audience in on the fact that he’s in love with Simon nearly gave me a heart attack. Don’t even get me started on my shock when Simon kissed Baz first. I had to reread that line over and over again for it to sink in. I mean, by that point it had become more apparent that Simon probably wasn’t straight, but I’ve read enough stories about straight guys who hate each other to the point that they become obsessed with each other to know not to assume anything.
In my opinion, making the audience wait 28 chapters before finding out that his nemesis was never actually interested in his girlfriend, but him instead was a great move. I imagine that a lot of people probably had guessed right away, but I was way too suspicious to believe that I was reading an interesting fantasy novel including open LGBTQ+ protagonists. It was one of those moments where I was so shocked I had to put the book back down to freak out. Imagine how much I freaked out after waiting 61 chapters before anything happened between the two of them. I mean, Rainbow Rowell really has the whole slow-burn enemies to lovers trope down to a T.
I later on discovered that if you take the jacket sleeve off of the hardback copy of the book, there is an outline of Simon and Baz about to kiss (yes I am clearly as oblivious as Simon). So sure, if I had taken the jacket sleeve off before reading the book, I would have realised that SnowBaz was probably canon, but I’m fairly certain that other versions of the book just have the outline of Baz and Simon facing each other. So essentially, unless you’ve heard about the book beforehand, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the story is LGBTQ+ at all.
If there’s one thing I love in a story it’s unreliable/biased first person narration; I LOVE thinking a certain way about a character for a majority of the narrative, just for new information to come to light and make you realise that your protagonist was actually just extremely oblivious. I’ve heard other readers complain that the beginning is too slow, but I personally loved the payoff. The readers are being set up to believe Baz is some horrible antagonist arch enemy who has no empathy whatsoever for over half of the book, just for Baz to arrive and tell us that he’s actually just gay and sad, so he lashes out at his crush because he has no healthy coping mechanisms, and wow is he attracted to Simon. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at any plot twist in a YA novel - I was so excited to see such chaotic characters as canon LGBTQ+ representation in a fantasy novel.
This story challenges the ‘hero sacrifices all’ trope and questions whether any of it is fair at all, as well as the grey area of morals and politics in an extremely entertaining and emotional way. Carry On teaches us that chasing power can actually leave you with less than when you started; Simon and his family lost everything because of The Mage’s search for power. This book has great representation for POC characters, plenty of LGBTQ+ representation, and we see these teenagers actually getting help for their mental health. This is the exact type of fantasy novel I’d always wanted to read; the perfect mix of lore, love and representation. We become acquainted with an entire world in a story that typically takes place at the end of a book series, but Rainbow Rowell managed to do it all in one book.
Thankfully, however, the book has since been confirmed as a trilogy (because we all wanted more). The second book in the series, Wayward Son was released back in September of last year, and is available to buy from online retailers such as Waterstones, WHSmith’s, DFTBA and The Bookworm Omaha (as well as in-store). The third book in the series, Any Way the Wind Blows has been confirmed as currently being written. So now’s the perfect time to read Carry On if you haven’t already!