Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 6 May 2016.

If I were to tell you that Carry On is the story of a boy wizard named Simon Snow, and his adventures at a secretive school for magicians, you would likely feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Carry On is an exercise in metafictional commentary and pastiche, and in that regard it’s a typical Rainbow Rowell novel. Best known for the critically acclaimed ‘Young Adult’ novel Eleanor and Park, much of Rowell’s career has been defined by taking cliché-ridden genres, from the teenage love story to the time-travel comedy, and re-invigorating them with a dose of wit and self-awareness. Carry On sees her tackling the YA fantasy sub-genre, specifically Harry Potter. Rowell treats her teenage audience as intelligently as ever, even if the novel’s referential nature makes it a tough sell for those not already familiar with her work.

This is unquestionably a book for fans, of Rowell’s work as well as Rowling’s, and positions itself in terms of modern fan discourse, with which Rowell’s teenaged fan base will almost certainly be familiar. The pop culture that shaped this book works right down to the characters’ origins. Simon and his love interest, the initially villainous vampire Baz, first appeared in Rowell’s 2013 novel Fangirl, where they featured in a piece of slash fanfiction written by the main character. There they functioned as an obvious stand-in for the popular romantic pairing of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy in fan-created media, so the act of giving them their own novel feels cheekily subversive, flying as it does in the face of Rowling’s original (particularly given her recent comments about Harry’s love life). The story begins with Simon entering his final year of study at the Watford School of Magicks, and continuing his battle with the ever-present menace known as the Insidious Humdrum. But when a ghost delivers Simon a cryptic message meant for Baz, the two must form an uneasy truce, and investigate a conspiracy which implicates the entire magical world, even the school’s headmaster, the Great Mage himself. And, of course, fulfill the promises of that original slash fiction.

If all of that sounds terribly derivative, that’s largely because it is. But it’s self-aware enough to get away with it. The novel requires a certain amount of trope-savviness from its reader, as well as an awareness of the online communities which have formed around works like Harry Potter and Twilight. Several jokes hinge on references to pop cultural terms, including the Bechdel Test and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. While these references may prove alienating for those unfamiliar with TV Tropes, they form a key part of a novel which criticizes its source material as much as it pays tribute to it.

This criticism feels particularly relevant in the wake of the controversy surrounding Rowling’s recent ‘History of Magic in North America’. Some have accused Rowling of cack-handedness in her treatment of Native American people, as well as in her attempts to diversify elsewhere. The casting of Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, for example, while welcome, has been viewed as an indication of the original work’s unconscious racial bias. Carry On is clearly written with these faults in mind, and addresses a few specific criticisms of Potter, chiefly by having the main characters’ same-sex relationship be an explicit part of the narrative rather than mentioned after the fact. Rowell also nicely skewers the franchise’s reflexive embrace of the Great Man theory of history through its endorsement of the ‘chosen one’ narrative. As Baz puts it, “Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen”.

This kind of critique is valuable, but only when it does not drown out the novel’s quality as a work of fiction. Luckily, Carry On is up to Rowell’s usual high standard – this may well be her funniest book yet. Her narrative voice is lively and affable, filled with careful introspection and witty asides – each chapter is narrated by a different character, and Rowell manages to make each one feel unique while maintaining a coherent style. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. A third of the way into the novel, Simon speculates: ‘Everyone’s still gossiping about where he’s been. The most popular rumours are “dark coming-of-age ceremony that left him too marked up to be in public” and “Ibiza.”’ This is witty and well-done, and comfortably within Rowell’s usual wheelhouse. Rowell’s weakness is her less idiosyncratic plot dynamics: the second half of the novel gradually peels back the layers of a conspiracy, but the series of revelations feels muddy and confused. It’s the one area in which Rowell fails to get the better of her predecessors.

On its own merits, Carry On is a fun and worthwhile read. But in the context of the time and culture from which it originates it feels absolutely crucial. It’s refreshing to read something that’s both fond and critical of the work it’s based on, and which is invested in real human relationships rather than exploiting a lucrative brand name. Compared to that awful-looking Eddie Redmayne film and the prospect of watching a play about a middle-aged Potter filing his tax returns, it’s clear which ‘franchise’ at this point has the more spark, the more charm, and, ultimately, the more magic. I’m with Simon every time.

‘Carry On’ is available to buy from the author’s website.

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