Review by Christopher G. Nuttall
There has been, ever since Harry Potter went mainstream, a demand for ‘representation’ – i.e. the inclusion of characters who are not the traditional heroes of such stories. The demand has always irked me for several different reasons, starting with the simple fact that Rowling was not writing a ‘growing up gay’ or ‘teen romance’ series. Harry Potter is a boarding school story combined with a magical adventure tale. Romance and sexual identity is not a big part of the series because it would detract from the story itself. It did not matter, in the long run, who Harry married. What mattered was how he finally beat You-Know-Who.
That is not to say there’s anything wrong with a ‘growing up gay’ or ‘teen romance’ series, because there isn’t. It’s just that Harry Potter is not that sort of book.
Whenever I hear the demands for representation, my general response is to suggest the demander try writing the story for themselves. Why not? Rowling set out to write a very specific kind of book – and it’s rather entitled to demand she changes what she’s doing to suit you – but there’s no reason you can’t try to write it yourself. Rowling does not have a lock on magic boarding school stories, let alone the ‘growing up gay’ or ‘teen romance’ genres. If you believe there’s a demand for such books, write them. Rainbow Rowell has done just that.
Carry On has a complex history, linked to one of Rowell’s earlier books, but it is effectively stand alone. The plot draws heavily from Rowling, then attempts to deconstruct the Harry Potter books. The result is something of a mixed bag. There are elements of the story that provide effective commentary on the Potterverse’s oversights and moral blindspots, but other aspects of the novel that have oversights and suchlike of their own. If you like the characters, as well as the commentary, you’ll probably like the book. If you don’t, you may find it something of a challenge.
Simon Snow is an orphan, the first wizarding child born (as far as anyone knows) to normal parents. He was discovered by the Mage when he turned twelve and invited to Watford School of Magicks, where he had a whole string of adventures that the text talks about in vague detail. He has a best friend – Penny – and a girlfriend – Agatha – he admits, privately, that he feels little for. And he has a rival, Baz, who is literally a vampire. Owing to some complex magic, the two boys are roommates. They hate each other.
Unfortunately, Simon is caught in the middle of a war. An enigmatic entity – the Humdrum – is creating blank spots, places where magic is gone forever. The Mage, having embarked upon a process of social reform and claimed Simon as his Heir, is on the verge of starting a fight with the old families. Everyone is choosing sides, save for Simon. He honestly doesn’t know what to do with himself. And when Baz fails to return to the school, Simon starts to worry about him.
Simon’s growing obsession with Baz leads him into a complicated family situation and a growing love affair, culminating in discovering the Humdrum’s true nature and the Mage’s role in its appearance. And this leads to a deadly fight that ends with the Mage’s death, and Simon losing his magic (it makes sense in context). In the end, Simon and Baz – officially a couple – set off to explore the post-war world.
It is impossible to assess Carry On without noting just how much it draws from Harry Potter and its fanon. Simon is obviously Harry, the Mage is Dumbledore, the Humdrum is Voldemort, Penny is a combination of Ron and Hermione, Agatha is Ginny, and Baz is Draco. Many of the smaller characters – some important, some only mentioned in passing – are expies of Potterverse characters too. Indeed, part of the reason I hesitated to read this book was that I’d never seen the Draco fandom as particularly healthy, nor did I see any reason for Harry to consider getting into a relationship with him. The canonical Draco did not wear leather pants, nor does he really start to grow up until Half-Blood Prince. Baz owes more to fanon Draco than the real Draco.
And yet, this does allow Rowell to put forward some intelligent deconstruction of the characters. The Mage’s zeal for social reform is not misplaced, but he’s caused both short and long-term problems for his world. His bid to complete a prophecy led to utter disaster, although it isn’t clear if he actually realises what he’s done. Agatha is torn between being seen as the prize for when Simon completes his mission and wanting – demanding – a life of her own. And both Simon and Baz are forced to come to grips with the simple fact that what they know about the world simply isn’t true. They both grow up in ways neither Harry nor Draco could in Harry Potter.
This does, however, lead back to the problem of what Rowling (and Rowell) were actually trying to achieve. Carry On has really two separate plots – the struggle against the Humdrum and the growing romance between Simon and Baz – and they don’t mesh very well. The struggle against the Humdrum lasts pretty much all of the book, but we don’t see enough of it … nor do we see Simon and Baz working towards his defeat. I’d have preferred to follow them as they slowly realised what was wrong with their world, then start trying to expose – or stop – the Mage. The action towards the end of the book is, at times, hard to follow.
The romance plot works better, if you like teenage romance. Rowell spends time developing both Simon and Baz as characters, allowing us to see inside their heads and understand, at least at some level, why they might find each other attractive. The book teeters on the brink of a love triangle that is hastily terminated by the characters, before they actually start kissing. I am no expert on romance novels, but it came across more as lust than true love. It also neatly evades the problem of them being on opposing sides by ending the war.
Rowell also touches neatly on other elements within Potterverse fanon. The pervasive racism – against both creatures and muggleborns – is deconstructed, openly showing that the old families bid to keep magic to themselves is doomed to fail. The universe is strikingly accepting of LGBT characters, but Baz has problems with his family because he’s a vampire and therefore cannot sire children. He once ruefully thinks his family would be quite happy to let him be queer, as long as he has kids. And Simon doesn’t find it easy to learn magic and has problems, real problems, channelling the power he has. There’s a hint that his growing relationship with Baz will help, but this is never really explored before Simon loses his magic.
And there’s a moment when a younger Baz pretty much gets away with destroying another magician’s life.
It’s difficult to rate Carry On because of the two separate plotlines. Considering the former, I wish more attention had been given to it; in particular, Harry/Simon’s slow realisation that his mentor is responsible for most of his problems. There were moments in the text when I thought Simon would make that jump, before he got his nose rubbed in his blindspot. But he doesn’t. Considering the latter, it’s hard to like Baz and it’s hard, therefore, to understand why Simon might find him attractive. And I’m not that fond of romance novels in the first place. Teenage romance, straight or gay or whatever, is often cringe-worthy – as I have said before – because most teenage romance is cringe-worthy.
Overall, though, reading Carry On was an entertaining hour or so. YMMV.