Reviewed by Zack Martin
It may be difficult to write a novel based on a fictional series of novels memorialized in fictional fan fiction from your last novel without ever asking readers to rely on your own source material, but Rainbow Rowell makes this maneuver look easy. In Carry On from 2015, Rowell returns to the parallel fantasy world that she had created via a frame in her late 2013 novel Fangirl. In that book, protagonist Cath is on a mission to write her own ending to the fictional “Simon Snow” series before the eighth and final installment of the series is released in print. Carry On is that final book.
Carry On is remarkable in its total lack of dependency on either the frame scenario from Fangirl—there is no mention of Simon Snow readership, no Rowell self-reflexivity whatsoever—or on the implied seven years’ worth of story that precedes the eighth (school) year that occupies Carry On. Rowell’s addicting commentary on source material and fandom is made to exist entirely independently of its own source with the context that informs it remaining just that: external information that enriches the experience of reading but does not interfere with the storytelling. Add to this the fact that Carry On is an ode to magical chosen ones, to Harry Potter, and to the joy a fan writer takes in lovingly remixing and what if-ing readymade worlds, and it is clear that Rowell has created a survivor.
Carry On recounts the final (and, in its world, optional) year at Watford School of Magicks for main characters Simon Snow, his best friend Penelope Bunce, his roommate and nemesis Baz Pitch, and his girlfriend Agatha Wellbelove. As such, the novel is just about as dramatic a deployment of in medias res as you can find, with the fact of “carrying on” built directly into its structure. Leaping into a nominally completed pseudo-series is a fascinating experience as a reader that is, in turn, supported by Simon’s own character. Simon is a Harry Potter lookalike with a twist. Whereas many fans and observers might have suspected it of Harry, here it is made transparent: Simon is the worst Chosen One ever. He is a fluke, a semi-complete mage, and his poor “magick” skills show it.
As is recounted in his own lore, Simon is the first known mage to have ever come from non-magical stock—there are no “half-bloods” in Rowell’s world of mages, a deviation from the Potter source material. Carry On is full of such revisions, which Potter aficionados will collect and savor. These changes are important, and they often reflect the times and the issues of power and class that J. K. Rowling developed as Potter progressed. Wheres Potter’s Hogwarts students were invisibly waited upon by an army of indentured service elves, early in Carry On Simon notes/explains that “nobody’s spoiled at Watford. We do our own cleaning and, after our fourth year, our own laundry” (36). As readers are made aware, the 2015 Watford wizarding community is caught up in an identity conflict about access: just how much latent power or ability should an individual need in order to be considered worthy of an education?
Simon’s candid, humble voice shines through this novel, and it is his growing self-awareness that permits him to defy expectations and survive. As the novel progresses–and Simon keeps on living–he begins to assert the possibility of himself. Simon’s fatalist mythology has been perpetuated from above by the Mage, the Headmaster and uncertain mentor figure to Simon, and from Simon himself by his penchant for violent magickal explosions and his magnetic attraction to baddies. It unravels as he begins to understand that life could, just could, go on after the warm embrace of Watford ends. In a touching and hopeful aside after Agatha opens up to Simon about her own uneasiness over the foregone conclusion that is Simon, he insists to himself that “(You have to pretend that you get an endgame. You have to carry on like you will; otherwise, you can’t carry on at all)” (143).
Persisting against all odds and resisting interpretations of yourself that would hold you back are at the heart of the intra- and interpersonal teen conflicts in Carry On and dovetail well with the predilection (read need) for young adult literature to embrace identity construction. Maybe that is why Carry On is so queer-affirming: in order to navigate turbulent environments, Watford’s young adults discover their own sexual expressions with honesty and self-assertion. And maybe that is also why the novel offers up, in its ending, such a touching representation of persisting as a community member even when it might appear that your right to belong has been revoked. You do the best you can with what you’ve got, Rowell seems to say, and Carry On certainly lives that truth.