Author: Rainbow Rowell || Publisher: Macmillan || Pages: 517 || Source: Hardback & Ebook Purchase (all quotes from ebook)
Simon Snow just wants to relax and savour his last year at the Watford School of Magicks, but no one will let him. His girlfriend broke up with him, his best friend is a pest and his mentor keeps trying to hide him away in the mountains where maybe he’ll be safe. Simon can’t even enjoy the fact that his room-mate and longtime nemesis is missing, because he can’t stop worrying about the evil git. Plus there are ghosts. And vampires. And actual evil things trying to shut Simon down. When you’re the most powerful magician the world has ever known, you never get to relax and savour anything.
Based on the characters Simon and Baz who featured in Rainbow Rowell’s bestselling novel Fangirl, Carry On is a ghost story, a love story, a mystery and a melodrama. It has just as much kissing and talking as you’d expect from a Rainbow Rowell story – but far, far more monsters.
“This isn’t a story!”
“Everything is a story.”
(Rowell, 2015, p.507)
Carry On does that thing that I love books to do the most. The narrative has a playful self-awareness that works on multiple levels. Carry On is not a repeat of the stories you know. Carry On is a play on the stories you know.
The book starts at the beginning of Simon Snow’s last year at Watford, a magic school. There are references throughout to Snow’s previous adventures during his years at Watford. But we don’t get those stories in novel form and, honestly, you don’t need them because you already know them. This book interacts with the knowledge you already have of this kind of story, the story of the chosen one saving the world whilst going to school. Harry Potter ring a bell? The Harry Potter series is a pop culture reference that Carry On has a conversation with, works with and plays with.
Consider the magic system in Carry On for a moment. Language is power. Having a good turn of phrase on the tip of your tongue is the way to be successful as a mage in this world. Examples include ‘Time flies!’ to make the time go faster if you’re having fun, or ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’ to make people not notice something. The more popular the phrase, the more powerful it is.
[An aside: I loved the history of this magic system and the theoretical and political clashes that have occurred. ‘Before the Mage’s reforms, Watford was so protective of traditional spells that they’d teach those instead of newer spells that worked better’ (Rowell, 2015, p.227). The Mage put a greater focus on looking at language as a living thing by recognising that there is as much if not more strength and relevance to phrases that exist now as opposed to ‘classic’ bits of language alone. Previous to the reforms old phrases, like quotes from Victorian literature, for example, would be seen as the better and more correct basis for a spell than new and current phrases. The old approach places language in a sort of stasis where there are cornerstone phrases from the past that should not be interfered with. The current approach is to work with language as an organic and changing thing, with respect for the power of phrases that are alive and thriving right now. These different approaches remind me of the debate over what ‘good’ literature is. Can our contemporary literature open up and enter the hallowed halls of academia and be discussed with just as much respect and depth as classic literature? I would say yes.]
There is more to say about the magic system in Carry On but I’ve digressed somewhat from my point about the narrative. Basically, the novel calls on your knowledge of Harry Potter and books like it to lend it strength and power, just as the magic system within the novel calls on phrases you know to produce an effect.
Once this book has you on the same page as it, having invoked the pop culture you know, it starts to dismantle it. The expected narrative fate of the characters and their relationships with each other frays. It frays under the tension of each of the character’s hyperawareness of how things are meant to go. Baz and Simon should be enemies. Agatha and Simon should ride off into the sunset to their happily ever after. Most importantly, to the Mage at least, Simon should end the threat to the world of mages once and for all.
All the characters know this is how things are meant to be. But some fight it, while others cling to it until they realise that it isn’t and doesn’t have to be the story you expect. I think this is best embodied in Agatha and the Mage. Agatha flirts seriously with the idea of rejecting the fate set out for her as the Chosen One’s girlfriend and her end decision made me proud. The Mage meanwhile is the one who has forcefully snapped people into the available roles within the narrative structure he thinks he is in. He’s studied the prophecies inside and out and he is sure he knows this story and how it should function. The driving force behind much of the Mage’s actions in this novel is his frustration over the fact this story will not behave the way he expects it to.
All of this playful pop culture work is carried out with great humour, much of it played out in the conversations and the individual point of view chapters quite a few of the characters get. I loved Agatha’s comments on her headmaster’s sense of style when she says ‘he’s always dressed like Peter Pan, and he carries a sword. Like, all the time’ (Rowell, 2015, p.392). I grinned as Baz skipped between a blunt declaration to himself that he’s ‘hopelessly in love with’ (Rowell, 2015, p.176) Simon Snow to complaining that ‘Snow doesn’t give a shit about waking me up’ (Rowell,2015,p.179).
The characters are written with charm and spark. They’re never too much of a cardboard cut-out of the character stereotypes they are cast as, which gives their struggle to break free of those roles more depth. I enjoyed this novel so much because of how endearing and interesting the characters are. They are, quite rightfully, the main driving force behind the dismantling of the Harry Potter-esque pop culture framework Rowell throws them in to.
Carry On, as my first read in 2016, has set the standard high in terms of awesomeness this year.