Teenage Wizards (Not THOSE Teenage Wizards) and Twisted Tropes: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On

In 2013, Rainbow Rowell published Fangirl, a young adult novel with an interesting speculative twist.  The novel itself wasn’t speculative. It revolves around a set of twin sisters who grew up absolutely enthralled with Rowell’s answer to Harry Potter, Simon Snow.  The main focus of the novel is one twin, Cath. Cath isn’t ready to leave her days in the Simon Snow fandom behind.  She’s a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the fandom, largely due to her long-running fanfic, Carry On, Simon. Her sister, Wren, is more than ready to jump into college life with both feet. Rowell peppers excerpts from the Simon Snow novels and from Cath’s various fanfic stories throughout the novel. In 2015, Rowell published her own version of these stories in the form of novel Carry On. She says in an Author’s Note that she wasn’t able to let go of the Simon Snow and wanted to know what her own version of the story would be. Not Cath’s or fictional author Gemma T. Leslie’s (creator of the Simon Snow series within the world of Fangirl), but hers.

To summarize, Carry On is almost like Rowell’s own fanfiction. It’s an interesting concept! I was curious enough to purchase a copy of the book but didn’t read it immediately.

Carry On (2015)
Written by: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 529 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

Why I Chose It: I decided to pick it up after acquiring an enormous book hangover from Stephanie Garber’s Caraval.  It’s a completely different sort of story, and I thought it would offer a pleasant palate cleanser. I wasn’t disappointed.

Premise:

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right.

Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it’s their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

Carry On — The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story — but far, far more monsters.

Very mild spoilers to follow.


Note: Rowell uses the spelling “magick” throughout her novel, so I have done the same here.

When I’m not feeling well, I turn to comfort in every aspect of my life.  Rowell’s YA novels, Eleanor and Park and Fangirl are at the top of that list. The characters go through a great deal, and while there isn’t exactly a happy ending in the case of Eleanor and Park, but there is hope. I was interested in the concept of Carry On more than I was in the story. This is part of the reason why it waited for me for almost two years before I finally picked it up.

Once I did start reading, I was pleasantly surprised by the story. There are some big concepts at work here. I love that Rowell trusts her younger readers to be able to either comprehend what’s going on or to seek guidance from someone more knowledgeable. One particular aspect concerns the Mage, the person who is in charge of the “World of Mages” (which possesses a great deal of similarities to J.K. Rowling’s magical world). This Mage is also the headmaster of The Watford School of Magicks. During this story, however, the Mage isn’t spending a lot of time running the school. There’s a bigger threat at work in the World of Mages that he feels he must deal with: the Insidious Humdrum. Another threat is the plethora of huge “dead spots” that have been opening up all over Great Britain for several years before the start of the novel. The “dead spots” suck away magic from a given area, crippling any magick-user that has the misfortune to be in that area. Nobody knows why the dead spots keep opening up, but all magicians fear them. The Mage is using this enormous threat to rifle through the homes of the old magickal families in search of any sort of outlawed texts and items that may, possibly, be causing problems for the magickal world at large.

Here is where I have to sit in admiration of Rowell and the faith she puts in her younger readers.  Not all of them may understand the implications of what it means to have a government official show up with his private military to search your home. The affected families have no choice but to submit to the Mage’s whims and wishes. It’s a terrible thing that may not be frightening unless you have studied enough history to know where Rowell is pulling these ideas from.

Meanwhile, in the background, we have poor Simon Snow attempting to navigate the last year of school. He is constantly on the lookout for threats, whether they come from his roommate, Baz, or from the Insidious Humdrum. Rowell smartly turns the Chosen One trope on its head with Simon; rather than excelling at magick, Simon isn’t very good at it. He’s constantly struggling to make spells work, despite assistance from his best friend, Penelope. He doesn’t truly excel at anything. His only talent seems to be killing monsters. Rowell manages to upend Simon’s talents here, too, when a dragon manages to attack the school. Baz convinces Simon to stop attacking the dragon (because it turns out that dragons really aren’t that bad), and together they manage to banish the creature without doing it further harm.

The novel ends with a surprising discovery that I won’t spoil here. I didn’t see it coming, which is a refreshing change. Rowell finishes the story with her signature blend of hope for the future mixed with a little bit of sadness that things didn’t turn out all right for every single character.

The Harry Potter similarities are obvious from the beginning. Carry On seems to be a loving homage to the story. Once I was past the first few chapters, I was able to lay those subconscious comparisons aside and simply enjoy what I was reading. My one bit of criticism is that the story almost goes a little overboard with its use of British vocabulary (slang included). It tripped me up from time to time, but ultimately did not take away any of my enjoyment as a reader.

In Conclusion: If you’re a fan of Rowell’s work, you won’t be disappointed here. This contains all of Rowell’s hallmarks: lovable and complex characters, witty dialogue, strong friendships, and an overall feeling of hopefulness, despite otherwise grim circumstances. If you’ve not read any of Rowell’s work before, you may not be able to appreciate this book nearly as much. That said, you may still find value in it with the way that Rowell takes the common themes of the Chosen One stories and brilliantly twists them about to her own satisfaction. It’s a creative, ambitious story, and I look forward to revisiting it.

12 Comments

  • Merrin July 4, 2017 at 10:36 am

    I HATED this book so much. It’s been a while since I read it but I remember not enjoying the entire schtick of it? The fact that there was no character development because you were already supposed to know these characters. It also had the cardinal sin of telling instead of showing like ALL over the place. Did not work for me at all.

    Reply
    • Shara White July 4, 2017 at 11:10 am

      Clearly, one book cannot make everyone happy! Sorry this one didn’t work out for you, but it’s good to hear why one book can make one person happy and another not. Had you read any of Rowell’s work previously to Carry On?

      Reply
    • Casey Price July 4, 2017 at 11:46 am

      Had you read Fangirl before you read this one?

      Reply
      • Merrin July 4, 2017 at 11:49 am

        I had, yes. I understood what it was trying to do, but it was like 250 pages of a thought experiment and I’m just not sure why I wasted my time with it.

        Reply
        • Casey Price July 4, 2017 at 11:58 am

          So, the “cardinal sin” of telling and not showing has been argued in many places as being good for a lot of situations, but not all. In my opinion, this was a perfect opportunity for tell vs. show because of the singular nature of the book (without having the nonexistent previous seven books to back it up). Here’s an article that I found interesting: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/why-show-dont-tell-is-the-great-lie-of-writing-workshops

          I agree that it was an experimental type of book, and I am sorry that it didn’t work for you.

          Reply
          • Merrin July 4, 2017 at 11:59 am

            I agree that it can be utilized effectively, but I don’t agree that it was here.

          • Merrin July 5, 2017 at 1:39 pm

            Okay I actually went and read this (I was on vacation through yesterday and didn’t click the link, sorry) but I think I’m talking about a different level? There were instances in Carry On where, like, Simon was attacked by supernatural beings and we didn’t hear about it until a conversation he had later with the Mage. I don’t care about “he bit his fingernails” vs “he was nervous” but that’s a different level than a classroom attack that seemed important to the plot at the time. (It’s been two years since I read this book, I’m working on vague memory and my own goodreads write up.)

    • Casey Price July 4, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      (Since it won’t let me reply to the thread below) If you agree that telling can be superior to showing in some instances, can you tell me some that worked for you? I’d like to check them out!

      Reply
      • Merrin July 5, 2017 at 1:15 pm

        I’ll have to take a look through my favorites. I know I’ve seen it used effectively but don’t have receipts right off hand. 🙂

        Reply
  • Lane Robins July 4, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    This book is in my roommate’s TBR pile. Maybe I’ll sneak it out and give it a try.

    Reply
    • Casey Price July 4, 2017 at 2:30 pm

      I hope you do! Even if you haven’t read Fangirl, there is plenty to appreciate here with the way that Rowell plays with traditional roles in YA fantasy. It’s pretty great!

      Reply
    • Shara White July 4, 2017 at 3:07 pm

      Do it!!!! Come back here and tell us your thoughts!

      Reply

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