Book Review: Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell must have a great agent.
Because really, it’s a ballsy thing to go up to a publisher and go “so, uh, the author I’m representing just wrote six hundred pages of Harry Potter slashfic. Wanna publish it?”
Makes me wonder if I should get ahold of Rowell’s agent to see if anybody wants to buy 60,000 words of Mass Effect/My Little Pony fanfic or something. Or I may just settle for writing GI Joe fanfic for Amazon instead.
Rowell’s work is more than a little outside of my typical wheelhouse. I mean, none of her books have dragons or spaceships on the cover. What gives? But, out of curiosity, I read Fangirl awhile back. It was a pretty standard and fluffy coming of age romance story, only the gimmick was the protagonist, Cath, dealt with her issues by writing novel-length fanfiction. Harry Potter fanfic, basically, just with the serial numbers filed off.
Carry On is that fanfic.
I’ve been meaning to read Carry On for awhile now, just for the metatextual angle alone. I mean, it’s fanfiction of a series that only exists in the world of another novel. It’s fanfic, free of canon– kind of like a reflection without a mirror, or something similarly zen.
In various interviews and blog posts around the time of Carry On‘s release, Rowell backed away from the fanfic thing a bit, declaring Carry On to be its own story. Which, at times, it is. Even still, the novel couldn’t exist without Harry Potter– or Harry Potter fanfic.
Carry On centers around a magical orphan with a great destiny by the name of
Harry Potter Simon Snow. Since his eleventh birthday, he’s gone to a magic boarding school called Hogwarts Watford, where he gets into various magical adventures with his brilliant friend Hermione Penny and his girlfriend Ginny Agatha.
(Ron doesn’t get a bootleg doppleganger so I guess Rowell just doesn’t like him).
The problem is, in addition to the various magical mysteries to be unraveled and the occasional monster trying to kill him, Simon must also deal with his villainous-but-sexy arch-nemesis,
Draco Malfoy Tyrannus Basilton Pitch. “Baz” for short. Oh, and Baz is also a vampire but one of those bullshit ones who walks around during the day and only feeds off animals. At least he doesn’t sparkle in sunlight, so there’s that? And, y’know, since Simon and Baz are sworn enemies who have tried to kill each other a couple of times, this obviously means they’re in love and they should really make out.
I’ll admit, I’m being a bit pithy and unfair.
On the one hand, I realized long ago that “shipping” is just a game various fandoms play with their characters. I mean, heck, I was downright floored when Korrasami became canon, but that’s just ’cause everything’s better with kung fu lesbians. On the other hand, I’m something of an originalist when I geek out about something, so I at least require the barest hint of subtext to validate a particular fannish tangent. To use The Force Awakens as an example, I can totally see Poe Dameron and Finn being a thing, though I’d be up in arms if somebody started going on about, like, Kylo Ren and Snap Wexley being secretly stupidly in love with each other or something. Or really shipping Kylo Ren with anybody because he’s an intentionally awful character.
So yeah. I’m not a fan of the Harry/Draco thing that’s so prevalent in HP fandom.
Then again, I don’t really read much fanfic to begin with (apart from tie-in novels of debatable quality) so I fully recognize that a good chunk of Carry On isn’t “for me.” Which is why it took me awhile to read this book. It’s written in a very fanficcy style (present tense, with shifting POV chapters), and a lot of words are devoted to goopy angst and stuff. Hell, there’s an entire chapter devoted to Simon & Baz’s first kiss, if that tells you anything. I’m not a fan of “Chosen One” characters, and I’m really not a fan of smarmy bad boy vampires in tight pants, so the first third or so of the novel is kind of a slog.
Rowell isn’t just writing a gay fanfic romance– the whole of Carry On really is a response to the Harry Potter series … and some of its shortfalls. There’s the inclusion of queer characters, for one– not just in the central couple, but also in some passing references to at least one lesbian relationship between some background characters. Additionally, Rowell also makes it a point to include characters of color (Penny, aka Not-Hermione, is half-Indian-British). Most interesting, however, is the magic system Rowell lays out. In Carry On, spells are based on common turns of phrase or cliches– everything from nursery rhymes to Queen lyrics to Star Wars quotes. This is really fun, as it intrinsically ties the magical world to the mundane one, which was always one of the biggest disconnects in the Harry Potter books. Though I kind of wonder what would happen if someone tried a spell called “I’m Batman” or something.
Furthermore, Rowell does a great job with characterization, fleshing out both sides of the book’s conflict. In particular, Baz’s family of Not-Malfoys are portrayed with actual sympathy, instead of just being a bunch of evil dudes in black robes. This said, they’re still snobby magical bigots who are way too concerned about ‘breeding,’ which they’re never really called out on. Still, on more than one occasion (especially at the start of the book), I found myself wishing that Carry On centered around some of the side characters like
Hermione Penny, or Baz’s punk-as-fuck aunt (who is Not-Bellatrix Lestrange, maybe?).
So yeah. Despite the goopy slashy romance, Carry On still works really well. Good fanfic isn’t an oxymoron, it’s just rare. There are a bunch of ways to approach Carry On. As a fictional fanfic to a series that doesn’t exist, there’s no canon to compare it to– I’m sure Baz & Simon don’t hook up in the “actual” Simon Snow books. Makes me kind of want to track down a copy of Fangirl again in order to compare the brief passages mentioned there. As a completely original work, Carry On has some fun ideas about magic and how a secret wizard world could operate … but again, I think Rowell’s ideas in the book really become more interesting once you look at them as a response and reflection of Harry Potter fandom.
So yeah. If you’re the kind of person who read (or perhaps even wrote? I won’t judge. Much) a bunch of embarrassing fanfic in your youth, Carry On is worth a read.