Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review: Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

The silhouetted profiles of two boys, one yellow and one blue, lean close together against a white background to give the impression they may be about to kiss. Far below them is the silhouette of a hulking black castle with lighted windows.
A couple years back, Rainbow Rowell wrote a contemporary YA novel called FANGIRL. I talked about it at great length because I loved it deep in my soul, and I’m bringing it up again now because CARRY ON has a vital connection to that earlier work. Cath, FANGIRL’s protagonist, is a popular fanfic writer hard at work on CARRY ON, SIMON, her own conclusion to the bestselling Simon Snow series. Said series follows a young wizard through his eight years of schooling, in which he faces off against both a dark force called the Insidious Humdrum and his own possibly vampiric roommate, Baz.

In Cath’s version, Simon and Baz fall in love instead of (or maybe as well as) killing each other in the Grand Denouement, as events are trending towards in the source text from which Cath takes her inspiratioin.

Rainbow Rowell’s CARRY ON isn’t Cath’s fic. Nor is it the canon series conclusion Cath finally gets to read at the end of FANGIRL. Rather, it’s Rowell’s take on the idea of a young adult fantasy series ender that brings the protagonist into a new kind of conflict with the antagonist.

And it all happens without the previous seven books in the series, since no one who's liable to read CARRY ON really needs them. We all know how children's fantasy series work, so we can guess most of what's happened prior to this. Besides, Rowell slots in all the relevant details as the current book’s plot demands.

The facts are these: Simon Snow spends his summers in government-funded care homes and returns to the World of Mages for the school year. Prophecy says he’s the Chosen One, but prophecy can’t help him get a handle on his unpredictable magic--or figure out what happened to his missing roommate, Baz, who he really shouldn’t be worried about since they’re totally mortal enemies and one of them’s gonna have to kill the other because that’s how plots work and Simon damned well knows it.

Now Simon’s in his final year of schooling, which means he’s got maybe ten months left to figure out how he’ll defeat the Insidious Humdrum and fulfill his destiny. And he’s got this terrible feeling it’d be a whole lot easier to do that if he could work out what the hell is going on with Baz.

The bare bones make it sound like CARRY ON is entirely Simon’s story, but Rowell’s working with a much broader canvas than that. Simon and Baz provide the plot; everyone else provides the juice. Because this isn’t just a good story, rife with rivalries and magics and dark forces to seek to undo everything the characters hold dear. It’s also a commentary on children’s fantasy, aimed squarely at those who love the stuff and who want to celebrate its tropes without denying any of their shortcomings.

Much like fanfic, yes?

I mean, the magic in the World of Mages literally runs on cliche. Rainbow Rowell went there, and I've been grinning my arse off over it for the last month.

CARRY ON employs a multitude of first person narrators. We hear from Simon himself; from his BFF Penelope; from his girlfriend Agatha; from Baz, once he stops being missing; from a mysterious woman named Lucy determined to reach through the Veil; and from heaps of supporting characters whose lives intersect with the leads’ to varying degrees of importance.

Any book that seeks to comment on children’s fantasy has to acknowledge Harry Potter as per the official rules, and it’s not hard to match these characters up with their HP equivalents. Where it really gets interesting is in how Rowell twists and illuminates her obvious analogs. The Mage, for example, isn’t a Dumbledore-equivalent seen solely through Simon’s eyes; he’s a Dumbledore-equivalent on his own terms, viewed from multiple angles that shed light on Dumbledore’s character in a far more succinct way than Rowling could manage within her own lengthy, limited-POV series. The way Simon sees the Mage is pretty durned far from how Baz sees him, or how he sees himself, and he’s far more frank about his ultimate goals in the privacy of his own head than Dumbledore could ever be in Harry’s hearing.

And I don’t wanna spoil you on the specifics, but his own POV makes it evident he’s not just a Dumbledore-equivalent.

At the same time, though, he’s a distinct character with a role to fill in this story, with its similar-to-but-different-from worldbuilding and its grey-spectrum political backdrop. All these characters fit established patterns, but they’re more than their narrative antecedents.

Likewise, Ebb, Rowell’s Hagrid-equivalent, is obvious in her role but distinct in her execution. She’s well-educated and powerful, but she doesn’t particularly want anything more than her goat-herder’s job. She’s sort of a proto-Agatha as well as a Hagrid; determined to live as she wants to, regardless of what others believe she should do with her life.

Of course, Rowell can afford to establish these characters via a series of vignettes because Rowling did the ground work already. I strongly suspect CARRY ON isn’t nearly as cool if you haven’t read Harry Potter. I suspect it’s a hundred times cooler than even I found it if you’re also well-versed in Harry Potter fandom and the many, many theories that zipped around the internet as everyone waited for new instalments. I spotted a few nods to popular fan theories, but I’ve never had the mental energy to join in these intense theorizing sessions myself so I’m sure I missed plenty of other awesome tidbits.

So CARRY ON, she’s a puzzle book of a different sort. One wants to figure out what Simon’ll do next, of course, but one is even more engaged in figuring out how this matches and differs from the story everyone at least sorta-knows. It’s a ton of fun, and it’s hella exciting if you share my interest in searching for textual evidence.

(I don’t have the mental energy to participate in fandom in a full-on fashion, but I love it in novel-sized doses I can consider at my leisure.)

Crap; I’m making it sound like there’s no point in reading this for the story. There is! The story is great! It’s just that it’s great at least in part because of all the fun commentary stuff.

The characters themselves play a huge role in the book’s overall greatness. They have their HP equivalents, yes, but like the Mage they play their own roles here and have their own clear stake not only in Simon’s destiny but in their own futures. Some of them are quite happy with how things are going; others, like Ebb and Agatha, want something different than the World of Mages insists they should. While I’m quite sure I’d never be Agatha--a person who doesn’t particularly care about magic and really just wants to get away from it, thanks very much--I appreciate her inclusion because it rings true. Of course this life isn’t for everyone. Of course some people will want to get out of it, and of course they’ll have trouble talking about their feelings with everyone they’ve grown up around. It’s always hard to be different, especially when the thing you’re different from is itself marketed as Different and Exciting and Desireable.

Then there’s Baz.

I don’t even know how to talk about Baz.

He’s mine.

I don’t mean that in a romantic sense. Baz and I wouldn’t be interested in each other. It’s just, you know when you meet a character? And you instantly know they’re yours, because they’re a queer jackass vampire and they’re just... they’re just... them?

I can’t explain it any better. You either know the feeling or you don’t.

Partly because of Baz and partly because of the overarching story, I reached a wonderful point maybe a third of the way through where it really hit me that I was reading something unabashedly queer. And it felt absolutely fucking wonderful. This shouldn’t have been such an unusual feeling, really, because I seek out and read lots of queer stories, but somehow CARRY ON had a different vibe to it all. Maybe it’s because it’s rooted in the fanfic tradition with its commitment to correcting problematic tropes like Tragic Queerness. Maybe it’s because it draws on a source text in which no one ever comes out on the page. It just felt wonderful to absolutely know these two boys would get together, even if they did end up having to kill one another in the end. (The book is in first person present tense, so no one’s survival is implied.) And it felt even more wonderful to know Rainbow Rowell would surely find a way to avoid the killing part of things, because this is a book that questions every trope there ever was, right from the Chosen One's Predestined Birth to the Death of Magic.

Really, there was only one bit I didn’t find wonderful. When Simon realizes he’s romantically interested in Baz, he immediately questions whether or not he’s gay. He doesn’t even consider he might be bisexual. And I mean, he can be gay, he doesn’t have to be bi, but it bothered me that this obviously confused young person who’d happily dated girls before wouldn’t so much as ponder the possibility. Bisexual erasure ain’t cool.

Other than that, though, this blew me away in a manner I’m struggling to articulate without opening a direct line from my emotions to yours. I loved the characters, I loved the commentary, and I loved the way it felt to whip through it as quickly as my vacation schedule would allow. It’s my second five-star book of the year (after to the sky without wings, a Star Wars fic by leupagus), and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


  1. AGATHA, also! Okay yes, I would not give up magic but I absolutely LOVE IT that Agatha just decides she can't keep risking her life for other people. Good for you Agatha. And I love that she just TAKES the dog.

    Also, I knew you'd love Baz. I read the first chapter from Baz's point of view and thought "Ah this will be good for Memory."

  2. I've wanted to read something by Rainbow Rowell for a while already, and now you've made me want to read Carry On first. But I guess it's more fun if you've read Fangirl? I know I'm going to love them both. Her Tumblr is glorious.

    1. Yeah, it's probably a bit more fun if you've already seen Simon through Cath's eyes, but there's really no reason you can't read this one first. It's a great book either way! And hey, maybe some familiarity with CARRY ON enriches FANGIRL for the first time reader.