Fiction does not produce itself in a bubble. Some of our most favorite stories are cliches, riffs on old ideas and beloved plot points–the true magic lies in how these old ideas are re-imagined in new ways. Following in this tradition, Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On is a blatant meta love-letter to this fine art of remixing and rehashing well-known plots with fresh insight.
And she does it all with an unrepentant riff of the Hogwarts-style magical boarding school, complete with a predestined “chosen” hero, a magical arch-nemesis who really-shouldn’t-be-named and so many other cliches all-too familiar for the Harry Potter generation–in short: this is a self-aware fanfic of epic proportions, and it is brilliant.
Carry On begins as the eighth novel for the fictional Simon Snow series, a story about “the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen”. The titular Simon Snow is an incredibly powerful mage, but not a particularly good one, his sheer power uncontrollable and finicky, even after eight years of tutelage at Britain’s premiere magical boarding school, Watford. But, though he may sometimes pose a danger for his fellow students and Watford staff, Simon Snow is indelibly tied to a prophecy, that foretells that he will rid the world of the “Insidious Humdrum” and save the world of Mages.
Of course, nothing can be easy for Simon: His mentor, The Mage, is avoiding him, his girlfriend has broken up with him, and worst of all, his “evil” roommate, who has been trying to kill him since he was 10 years old, is missing. There is no doubt that Baz is plotting Simon’s demise out of sight and out of mind–but paranoia turns to worry when he doesn’t show up for the first day of school, kicking up a chain reaction of events that will eventually rock the World of Mages to its core.
There are aspects of Carry On that will, of course, seem like a brilliantly shielded Harry Potter fanfic–which makes it incredibly fitting since the whole rivalry (and chemistry) between Simon Snow and Baz was a central plot device for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. But don’t mistake Carry On for a sequel; this is a stand-alone story that has its own distinct voice and sharp edge. But the nature of its almost-familiar plot-line is actually integral to the experience.
Because in just a few chapters, Rainbow Rowell effectively handles the world-building and plotting that would have taken the course of several books to complete; readers can immediately jump into Carry On with the familiar dance of the hero’s journey ala the indelible Harry Potter. We can dive right into the action, in a world that is so intimately familiar to us, without the baggage of having to build it. At the heart of good fanfiction is the idea that the plot is so familiar, so predictable, that what matters the most is getting to the heart of the matter: e haracter development.
And one of Rainbow Rowell’s greatest strengths is her sense for drawing out characters who are delightful, repellent, charismatic, and complex.
For instance, Simon Snow cheerfully debunks the “chosen one” stereotype, with his own apathy for the role and a hesitation to use his powers for the greater good. His girlfriend, Agatha, is well-aware of what the world sees her as: the prize for Simon, trapped in a role that she wants out of, but is not too sure what else there is for a pretty Mage of middling talent if she turns down the chosen hero. And The Mage is no wise Dumbledore or Gandalf–his own advice for Simon barely brushes “useful” as he is warped into the weft of his own paranoia, and his own desire to keep a grip on the grumbling Mage elite of Britain, who are chafing underneath his rule. And Baz–there’s a lot to say about Baz–about his sarcasm, his anger and disbelief in “fate” and “prophecies”, his acceptance of his sexuality complicated with the futile, impossible crush he has on Simon Snow–especially since the object of his affections adamantly believes he’s out to kill him.
With the story framed in chapters with multiple, rotating POVs, there are more characters to learn about, more secrets revealed in a tantalizing web of plotting that is afforded its due when the focus is less on world-building and more on responding.
So to recap: There’s a magical war, there’s ghosts (many ghosts!), pop-culture references and jingles are transformed into magical incantations that gain power and become the most useful of spells (there’s a use for earworm lyrics like “Call me maybe”, trust me), and there’s also a satisfying slow-burn romance that develops naturally and offers the option for a happily ever after. Thus, by using the all-too familiar conceit of a magical society operating underneath mundane noses, Rainbow Rowell then focuses the full strength of her writing on her inventive character arcs, and she does so with fair attention to each of these interweaving storylines.
Carry On is the ultimate YA meta meditation on fanfic–a sheer delight in taking story-telling to new heights, with something familiar, and something new–solidifying the literary tradition of remixing beloved tales into grander stories. For the YA fans out there, new readers looking for a way to approach this genre–or even those members of the Harry Potter generation feeling wistful about our Hogwarts days–Carry On is a must read for its commitment to doing what fiction does best: inspiring new stories built on old ideas.