by Rainbow Rowell
2015 • 522 pages • St. Martin’s Griffin
Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On may be the most anticipated deconstruction of Harry Potter since we all stumbled out of our midnight screenings of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, feeling very strange indeed.
Of course, there have been other deconstructions. The Magicians, The Unwritten, and Mr. Toppit are all deconstructions of Harry Potter to a degree, but they’re at once more broad and more narrow than Carry On. They pull from a variety of other texts, like The Chronicles of Narnia and Winnie the Pooh—but they pull only from those texts. What Carry On does differently from those deconstructions and, in fact, any other deconstruction I’ve read is that it also pulls from the metatext that is the vastness of the Harry Potter fandom, the ur-gateway fandom for Millennials.
In her acknowledgments, Rowell states that Carry On is her take on a Chosen One narrative, but you’d have to be (unfathomably) unfamiliar with Harry Potter to read this and not think of the Boy Who Lived. And, of course, that’s rather the point. Carry On is a deceptively soft deconstruction of Harry Potter: while it lacks the sheer brutality of The Magicians, it’s more interested in picking at holes you may have not noticed in the original text to unearth and engage with the strange implications underneath than trying to shatter your childhood innocence in one blow.
(No, I’m still not over how The Magicians ended, if you haven’t noticed how I’ve not finished the trilogy.)
So much of Carry On will sound familiar—the Chosen One Simon Snow, his intellectual spitfire of a best friend Penny, his school nemesis Baz Pitch, the World of Mages, and the villainous Insidious Humdrum. It’s not exactly the last Simon Snow novel from Fangirl or BNAF Cath’s very popular eighth year fic of the same name from Fangirl. It’s a mix of the two, allowing Rowell to riff both on Harry Potter and dig into a slash-inspired queer teen romance.
Obviously, I am all for more queer romance, especially when its for young adult readers. But I never did quite dig into Baz and Simon’s relationship as much as I would have liked. Then again, I was never a Harry/Draco shipper, so I can’t read Carry On with the same intensity, nostalgia, and depth as, say, Aja Romano. (I was a ship agnostic little Potterhead, surprisingly, although I now ship Ginny/Anybody But Harry. HE ONLY LOVES YOU FOR YOUR FAMILY! IT’S NOT ANYBODY’S FAULT! YOU DESERVE BETTER!) For what I imagine are “secretly an ancient Frenchwoman” reasons, I prefer my ships to play the long game of emotional devastation. I certainly enjoyed it, though, especially Baz’s Helga Pataki-esque attitude towards his feelings for Simon.
Instead, I ended up focusing more on the World of Mages and Rowell’s already well-established gift for characterization. I adored every riposte to Rowling’s infamously wobbly worldbuilding, such as magicians not constituting enough of a population to support their own economy, the language of spells drawn not from Latin but from common phrases from all languages and dialects, and the very pointed “Who interrupts a war to send the kids home for summer holidays?” (10) In this world, it makes sense that the major threat to the World of Mages is limited to the UK. And the way she deals with the Mage is—well. Righteous is the word. All of this comes clearly from a place of love and contemplation, like all the best criticism.
And as for the characters! Simon immediately broke my heart; he’s much more aware of the trauma and tragedy of his life than Harry ever was. He feels a little helpless in the face of his destiny, worries about his friends wasting magic on him, and still dreams of the dragons he’s killed. But I ended up adoring Baz and Penny the most. Baz’s queerness and vampirism put him at odds with his traditional family in different and sometimes conflicting ways; it’s often difficult for Baz, who lost his mother at such a young age and lives very much under her shadow, to think about what life would have been like had she lived—would she have loved him enough to accept him the way he is? And Penny is—well, she’s someone Hermione would get on with fabulously. And the fact that she and Baz get on like a house on fire despite their differing political ideologies? Adorable.
And then there’s Agatha. Jenny devoted a section of her review to Agatha that I screamingly agree with. Agatha is the only character to recognize, on some level, that her society is trying to turn her into a footnote in Simon Snow’s story as his girlfriend. She’s nowhere as scrappy or ferocious as Penny, but she has a will of iron once she knows what she wants. But that’s a lengthy process, that takes her through pursuing Baz romantically (which, obviously, does not pan out) and deciding if this is a world and a narrative that has a place for her to be a whole human being. She’s the only character who reacts “normally” to this events—all Agatha wants is a normal life without fighting evil. She gets the last word in Carry On, and she absolutely deserves it.
(Ugh, and it absolutely slays me that she doesn’t know [REDACTED]!)
Carry On is a fantastic deconstruction of Harry Potter and a fun novel in its own right. I’m so glad Rowell wrote it.
I rented this book from the public library.