(Book Review) Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

One of my favourite ways to describe something is by referring to carry onit as “meta.” I enjoy the way the word is actually a prefix rather than an actual word, as well as how pretentious it makes me sound; yes, I am that kind of person. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, then, could potentially become one of my favourite books of all time, solely because it is basically the most meta thing that has ever happened. If you are not aware of the provenance of the book, here it is (you will need to pay attention): in her first novel, Fangirl, Rowell created a fictional world-within-a-world in the form of Simon Snow and the world of the Mages, a series of novels idolised by Fangirl‘s main character to the extent that she writes fan fiction based on it. In Fangirl, Cath writes a fanfic novel called Carry On. Confusingly, this is not it; this is real-life Rainbow Rowell’s version of Simon Snow’s adventures, not imaginary Cath’s. I don’t know if that even makes sense to me and I have read both books.

The thing is, I assume the people most excited about Carry On will be fangirls of Fangirl, but really the readers least likely to be confused by it are people who haven’t read the source novel. Those lucky people will be able to enjoy Carry On without periodically wailing “but what IS this book?” Because another spanner in the works of discussing it properly is that it is clearly also a very clever pastiche of another well-known series of YA/children’s books about a teenage wizard and his battle against evil. In this respect, I think Carry On works on two levels; first, if you have read and enjoyed the Harry Potter series, this is an amusing reflection on certain aspects of it, and second, all the things people hate about The Boy Who Lived are probably the things Rowell sends up here. So, in theory, there is something here for everyone.

Shall I actually say useful things about the book I’m reviewing now?  Simon Snow is The Chosen One: the prophesied Mage (i.e. wizard) who will save the magickal (sic) world and bring balance to the Force (because he is not just Harry Potter; he is Luke Skywalker too. And Katniss Everdeen. And Bella Swan.  I told you, attention is essential here).  The problem is that Simon is quite rubbish at magic; “the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen,” as his nemesis, Baz, calls him. In addition to a possibly-evil enemy, Simon has a female friend who is really smart and a mentor who wants to protect him but quite often ignores him for inexplicably long periods of time and sometimes sends him into clearly dangerous situations.

So now you’re thinking, ‘but I’ve read Harry Potter and the Very Detailed Account of Everything He Does; why do I need to read this too?’  This is a valid point, based on what I’ve said so far. And here is the answer: Carry On is really funny. Rowell manages to invert expectations, providing a witty and engaging commentary on the stories she borrows from without becoming derivative, which is a pretty neat trick. For example, there is a lot of swearing here, which makes things both amusing and realistic: frankly, I would swear if a dragon was trying to kill me or if I thought my roommate tried to feed me to a monster. The characters here make fun of each other in an affectionate but cutting way which rings true, which means even in the earnest moments, the tone is light enough to avoid melodrama. Rowell’s characterisation is great too; the split narrative means all the protagonists have their voices heard, giving all of them depth and a unique perspective.  The world-building is on an almost epic scale too; as an example, spells in the world of Mages are based on cliches, popular culture and even lyrics, so characters are often shouting the words to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or Scooby Doo impressions at each other.  There’s something delightfully knowing about Carry On which raised a lot of smiles from me.

A particularly impressive feat is the sublime English-ness of Carry On. Rowell is from Nebraska, yet writes dialogue for English characters which is more convincing than a lot of writing by English authors. Carry On focuses on Simon’s final year at school, and there are many references to his adventures in previous years, all of which hit home perfectly; so Rowell has also managed to write the final book in a series without having to write any of the previous ones, which surely is one of the cleverest things ever achieved by a human.

I’ve not even mentioned most of the plot details. Simon has spent seven years battling the Insidious Humdrum, an adversary who nobody really understands. His relationships are complex, with the love-hate relationship with Baz providing the novel’s emotional resonance and allowing Carry On to show far greater diversity than was ever managed by the novels it parodies. Simon doesn’t know who his parents were because, obviously, he is an orphan.  There are wars afoot in the magical world, with the choosing of sides occasionally proving difficult. The resolution of all these strands is unpredictable and, at times, challenging; as in her other novels, Rowell does not patronise her target demographic. It’s a fairly long YA novel (522 pages) but it flies, something it has in common with Fangirl.  Carry On is both fun and serious, both knowing and unpretentious, and very meta; I recommend it, regardless of your opinion of that other boy wizard.

Carry On will be available soon at Greenville Public Library. Reserve a copy today.