Magic and Lyrics: Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On

I was excited to read Carry On because of how much I loved Rainbow Rowell’s previous book, Fangirl. The combination of tension and affection at the heart of the relationship between Fangirl’s protagonist, Cath and her sister, Wren, spoke to me, as did Cath’s emergency supply of “too anxious to eat in the dining hall” energy bars. Cath found relief from the drama of her personal life through her fanfiction about Simon Snow and his friends at Watford School of Magicks. Carry On is the book Cath was waiting for – the final volume in the (tragically non-existent) Simon Snow series. I love that this book now actually exists, and that it is simultaneously so magical and so real.

Cath’s fanfic made Simon Snow sound like a darker, sexier Harry Potter. It was difficult to tell whether that was a result of Cath’s interpretation, or an aspect of the fictional source material that was the focus of her work. Carry On quickly resolves this question. The simple profiles in Olga Grlic’s cover illustration convey a degree of interpersonal chemistry that didn’t appear in the Harry Potter books until Sirius and Lupin forgave each other in Prisoner of Azkaban. The cover blurb from Lev Grossman assures me that I’m not making this up.

As Carry On opens, Simon and his roommate Baz have been smoldering at each other across their dorm room since they were eleven. I’m sure this will thrill readers who like their sexual tension thick and smoky, but if I have a complaint about Carry On, it is that this seems unfair. I cannot recall the last time I read a story in which a straight teenage character waited six years to kiss someone. Six years of smoldering has left Baz and Simon regarding each other as fascinating nemeses. They have sometimes been mortal enemies and sometimes reluctant allies, but as the book begins, Simon is smoldering alone; Baz is mysteriously missing from school.

Simon’s career at Watford has been dominated by the fight against the most important threat facing the Magickal world – a mysterious force known as the Insidious Humdrum. His friend Penny and his (now ex-) girlfriend Agatha have been far more than sidekicks in this struggle. Penny and Agatha both have complicated stories, relationships, and expertise of their own. Because Carry On is the only extant portion of the seven-book series describing Simon’s school years, relationships and history all have to be described here and now. Rowell unfolds the story through her characters, who expose themselves along with the plot. Each of these is fascinating enough to support a novel of their own.

Simon’s mentor, The Mage, is a creepy riff on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century French philosopher who gave the Jacobins unfortunate ideas about the relationship between decapitations and democracy. As Watford’s headmaster, The Mage opposes the class distinctions that kept large numbers of Magickal children from studying at Watford in the past. His crusade for the elimination of these social barriers is, unfortunately, part of his effort to create a totalitarian regime in the Magickal world. He and his shock troops dress like Robin Hood and raid a lot of private libraries.

The Mage is an enigma because of his complete lack of interest in the students in his care. When Simon and his friend Penny were kidnapped by the Insidious Humdrum at the end of their sixth year of school, the Mage listened to their story and then dropped Simon off at a care home where he had no contact with anyone from Watford until the next term began in September. The Mage’s insistence that Simon spend his summers in institutions is allegedly intended to help him keep in touch with shifts in the vernacular used by “Normals.” Why does The Mage care about the vernacular? Because Rowell’s spells are based on lyrics, poems, and turns of phrase whose frequent repetition has given them immense power. Watford students need to carefully consider the potential future uses of Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Rowell’s characters are so rich because of her commitment to painful realities. Simon and Baz are both orphans (Baz’s mother died when he was young, Simon’s parents are unknown). Orphans in fiction often represent fantasies of freedom from parents and responsibilities, but Rowell lets orphanhood be painful. Baz struggles with an identity he knows his mother could never have accepted. Simon indulges in the fantasy that his parents might have been wonderful and well-intentioned people – but it’s one of his very few indulgences. As a consequence of spending the first eleven years of his life, and all of his summers, in a series of institutions, Simon is chronically underweight. He loves his school uniform and the smell of school soap. He is just as grateful for the moments when the Mage’s complete indifference appears to waver as he is for the semi-maternal affection offered by his friend Ebb, Watford’s resident goat-herder.

Rowell shows her characters’ struggles without tormenting them. The endless well of Baz’s sarcasm plays an important role in this. I love a snarky teenager. It would be easy for Simon and Baz to dominate the story, but Penny and Agatha stand up to them really well. This is really a book with five protagonists. Although there was no need for Rowell to keep Carry On’s canon consistent with the snippets of novel and fanfiction from Fangirl, she not only did that, she expanded on it in several directions, adding additional characters and more mythology. She builds a magical society that blends seamlessly with the everyday world.

I would happily read the whole Simon Snow series backwards, including the obviously necessary spin-off story about Ebb the Goatherd.

Carry On is available October 13th from St Martin’s Press.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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