Carry On is a strange beast. Not just a mix of young adult genres – with a magical pinch of fantasy and romance – but also with unusual, meta origins.
The book follows the World of Mages’ Chosen One, Simon Snow, as he enters his final year at the Watford School of Magicks. Throughout there are references to challenges he and his friends, book-smart Penelope and beautiful Agatha, have faced throughout their teen years from mysterious villain the Insidious Humdrum, and altercations with his roommate and sworn enemy, Baz. But the war facing this world is coming to a climax and the Christmas holidays don’t end up being very festive…
For the uninitiated in Rainbow Rowell’s work, the world of Carry On first appeared in her last book, Fangirl, which followed a college student writing her own fan-fiction based on a series of books written by an author called Gemma T. Leslie.
Rowell has now taken this world to expand it further and on her own terms outside the Fangirl universe, having said she felt she had more to say with the characters with her own voice.
She has said: “So, even though I’m writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series … I think what I’m writing now is canon.”
So that’s that then. But what really makes the book feel strange is the unarguable similarities with the Harry Potter series. It makes sense that to insert a fictional series into Fangirl some parallels with this internationally famous book and film series might be drawn so the spirit of the story can easily be understood by any reader. But for an entire 500-page novel, the likeness of some aspects is too much to forget.
Most notably, to name but a few, there’s the whole school structure at Watford, including getting called up age 11, mysterious, admired headmasters in Dumbledore versus The Mage, the elusive villain and the way he attacks the protagonist or sends others to attack at school, the bookish female best friend, and so it goes on.
However, I would like to stress that this does not preclude any enjoyment of the book, it is just one troubling factor – although it can also be argued it is a fantastic ode to fan-fiction and Harry Potter in itself. Regardless, I absolutely raced through the book.
Rowell’s style is so easy to read and leaves you constantly wanting more. The chapter structure, changing between points of view, is extremely effective as you end up reading on to find out what’s going on with another character or what they think about what just happened.
There is also much inventiveness here still – I enjoyed the way spells were cast using clichés or well-known phrases from our language, the fact Mages and Normals mixed more than in the aforementioned series, meaning there were more cultural references casually thrown in by magicians, and the range of dark and horrible creatures from vampires to numpties.
That’s without even mentioning something which is practically as unusual as all of this in mainstream book releases: a young gay romance. The moment when this finally begins is really quite something.
It was surely brave of Rowell to diverge from the normal footprint of both her adult and teenage works and stick with her passion project and it does work. Despite my lingering reservations, it was a fun read and I will continue to await more from Rowell with anticipation.