Book Review: 'Carry On'
Earlier this year, I read Rainbow Rowell's novel Fangirl, which is all about the world of fanfiction.
I liked it, although not as much as Eleanor and Park, which is one of my all-time favorites. (You should read it!)
In Fangirl, the main character, Cath, writes online fanfiction for a popular book character named Simon Snow. Simon Snow is the subject of several children's books by the author Gemma T. Leslie. However, both Simon and Leslie are the figments of Rowell's imagination, an avenue for her to explore the world of fanfiction without having to worry about licensing issues. Simon is a magician born to non-magic people who attends a school of magic in England, gets into multiple adventures with his roommate, and is the "Chosen One" destined to save the world from a sinister new threat. If that plot reminds you of a certain other franchise, that's not by accident. There are too many parallels between Simon Snow and Harry Potter to count, but in Fangirl, the Simon's story is interjected between chapters as a sort of addition to Cath's story. Rowell takes turn writing the "official" version by Leslie and then Cath's fanfiction. If anything, they could largely be ignored without getting in the way of the story.
But then Rowell chose to write an entire book about Simon Snow, with no mention of Cath or Fangirl anywhere to be seen, and it's hard to ignore the main character. Carry On is not a sequel, and it's not exactly a spin-off. In the author's notes, Rowell writes that after finishing Fangirl, she "couldn't let go of Simon...I kept thinking what I'd do with him if he were in my story, instead of Cath's or Gemma's." She also says that Simon is "kind of an amalgam and descendant of a hundred other fictional Chosen Ones," and that this is her take on the Chosen One trope.
Except...that's not exactly true. Simon is clearly defined and indeed limited by one Chosen One story, one whose shadow still looms large over the world of children's book publishing, and even movies and television, today. In fact, Carry On so desperately wants to be a Harry Potter story that it almost reads like fanfiction itself, albeit fanfiction where all of the characters and settings are just poor imitations of whatever they are trying to emulate.
In the book, Simon is in his eighth and last year at Watford, and is obsessed over the fact that his roommate/enemy, Baz, who also happens to be a vampire, hasn't shown up to school. When Baz's dead mother appears to him during the "Lifting of the Veil," an event that happens once every few years, and encourages him to help her son find her killer, Simon becomes even more obsessed with figuring out Baz's story. When Baz does get to Watford, he admits that he was kidnapped for several weeks. Simon sees a connection and tacitly agrees to help Baz decipher his mother's message. Except for eight years, the two have been bitter enemies, in part because Simon represents a new order in the World of Mages ushered in by its cryptic and powerful leader, the Mage. The Mage is Simon's mentor and the headmaster of Watford. Baz's family, on the other hand, is part of a line of "pure" magicians who reject the Mage's leadership. Simon and Baz have always expected that one of them would have to kill the other, but Simon must also hunt the Insidious Humdrum, an all-powerful mage who can suck all of the magic out of a place.
So, yeah, basically Harry Potter, with a few minor tweaks. The one thing that Rowell keeps different here to make things interesting is the dynamic between Baz and Simon. We learn partway through the novel (and this is no surprise to those who read Fangirl) that Baz is in love with Simon. But Simon is on the outs with his girlfriend, Agatha, partly because he thinks she loves Baz, but he is also shocked to find that his obsession with his roommate is confusing him more than he'd like to admit.
Rowell is still a deft writer, and her books are always best when it comes to dialogue and young romance. That's no different here, but she has to go through so much world building as she tries to catch readers up on eight years of Simon and Baz's history and exploits that the story tends to get bogged down in details. Further confusing things, each chapter is told from a new point of view, which I never like in books, but even less so here. Her choice of perspectives is jarring, choosing to unfold part of the story from the point of view of a woman who is long dead and has an mysterious connection to the Mage.
I like Rowell's work, and I was interested to see her take on fantasy, but ultimately, this is a big disappointment. I felt that if she had been able to come out of Harry Potter's shadow just a little more and write a truly original story, Carry On would have been a lot more fulfilling.