It probably helps to start with Fangirl. Which I read, oh, two or three years ago? It’s the only other book by Rowell I’ve read, and I only thought it was okay. But I know I’m not the only person to think the best parts of that book were the faux fan fiction pieces the main character was writing.
For context: Fangirl is about a girl who goes away to college and writes fan fiction as a hobby. (I totally identified! I just thought the overall plot of the novel was weak.) Her fics are based on a Harry Potter-esque series about a boy at a magical school. The boy’s name is Simon Snow, and his fic love interest is Baz. Sort of a Harry/Draco dynamic.
Anyway, as I mentioned, the best parts of Fangirl were the fic bits. So… Carry On and Wayward Son are full novels of the fic bits. Like, if you ever want to read something that feels like fan fiction but isn’t? Or something that’s designed to prompt fan fiction in its own right? That’s what these two books are.
And I loved Carry On. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, but yeah. It 100% worked for me. It jumps in at Simon’s and Baz’s last year at Watford, which is their version of Hogwarts. And one doesn’t feel like they’re missing anything by not having seen the first seven years. Most of it gets mentioned in passing anyway; it’s easy to construct an overall sense of the friends, their histories, etc. And it’s more interesting to get directly to the part where they fight the big bad, in this case the Humdrum (rather than Voldemort).
Carry On borders on parody, except it has too much heart for that. And genuine angst.
Wayward Son, then, picks up after school is over. What happens to heroes when they no longer have Humdrums to fight? While still a fun read, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say there were certain things I felt could have been more fully explored. (Feel free to comment or hit me up on Twitter if you want to discuss.)
A third book is due out next summer. We’ll see where things go. For now, I’m already missing the characters; I really did fall in love with them. Which means Rowell did an exceptional job as an author, at least with these two books.
ETA: My original review of Fangirl from 2017 is here. I didn’t know at the time that Carry On had been published.