“Everything is a story” -Review of Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Posted October 5, 2019 by Fictional Fox in Book Review / 0 Comments

“Everything is a story” -Review of Carry On by Rainbow RowellCarry On by Rainbow Rowell
Published by Wednesday Books on May 9, 2017
Pages: 522
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A #1 New York Times-bestseller

Simon Snow is the worst Chosen One who's ever been chosen.

That's what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he's probably right.

Half the time, Simon can't even make his wand work, and the other half, he starts something on fire. His mentor's avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there's a magic-eating monster running around, wearing Simon's face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here — it's their last year at the Watford School of Magicks, and Simon's infuriating nemesis didn't even bother to show up.

Carry On - The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow is a ghost story, a love story and a mystery. It has just as much kissing and talking as you'd expect from a Rainbow Rowell story - but far, far more monsters.

Quick note: This is a repost of a review I have posted elsewhere but I wanted to bring it across to Fictional Fox as a point of reference for when I review Wayward Son.

“This isn’t a story!”

Everything is a story.”

(Rowell, 2015, p.507)

The narrative in Carry On has a playful self-awareness. Carry On is not a repeat of the stories you know, Carry On is a play on the stories you know.

The book starts at the beginning of Simon Snow’s last year at Watford, a magic school. There are references throughout to Snow’s previous adventures at his wizarding school but we don’t get those stories in novel form. Honestly, you don’t need them because you already know them. This book interacts with the knowledge you already have of this kind of story, the story of the chosen one saving the world while going to school. Harry Potter ring a bell? The Harry Potter series is a pop culture reference that Carry On has a conversation with, works with, and plays with.

In Carry On  language has power. Having a good turn of phrase on the tip of your tongue is the way to be successful as a mage. Examples include ‘Time flies!’ to make the time go faster if you’re having fun, or ‘These aren’t the droids you’re looking for’ to get people to turn a blind eye. The more popular the phrase, the more powerful it is.

[An aside: I loved the history of this magic system and the theoretical and political clashes that have occurred during its development. 

Basically: ‘Before the Mage’s reforms, Watford was so protective of traditional spells that they’d teach those instead of newer spells that worked better’ (Rowell, 2015, p.227). The Mage put a greater focus on looking at language as a living thing by recognising that there is as much, if not more, strength and relevance to new phrases as there is to ‘classic’ bits of language.

  The old approach placed language in stasis with cornerstone phrases that should not be interfered with. The current approach is to work with language as an organic and changing thing, with respect for the power of phrases alive and thriving right now. These different approaches remind me of the debate over what ‘good’ literature is. Can our contemporary literature open up and enter the hallowed halls of academia and be discussed with just as much respect and depth as classic literature? I would say yes.]

There is a lot more to discuss about the magic system in Carry On but I’ve digressed too far already from my point about the narrative. Basically, the novel calls on your knowledge of Harry Potter, and books like it, to lend it strength and power, just as the magic system within the novel calls on phrases you know to produce an effect.

Once this book has you on the same page as it, having invoked pop culture, it starts to dismantle it. The expected narrative fate of the characters and their relationships with each other frays. It frays under the tension of each of the character’s hyper awareness of how things are meant to go. Baz and Simon should be enemies. Agatha and Simon should ride off into the sunset to their happily ever after. Most importantly, to the Mage at least, Simon should end the threat to the world of mages once and for all.

All the characters know this is how things are meant to be. Some fight it from the off. Others cling to it until they realise that it isn’t, and doesn’t have to be, the story you expect. I think this is best embodied in Agatha and the Mage. Agatha flirts seriously with the idea of rejecting the fate set out for her as the Chosen One’s girlfriend. Her end decision made me proud. The Mage, meanwhile, is the one who forcefully snaps people into the available roles within the narrative structure he thinks he is in. He’s studied the prophecies inside and out and he is sure he knows this story and how it should function. The driving force behind much of the Mage’s actions in this novel is his frustration over the fact this story will not behave the way he expects it to.

All of this playful pop culture work is carried out with great humour, much of it played out in the conversations and the individual point of view chapters quite a few of the characters get. I loved Agatha’s comments on her headmaster’s sense of style when she says ‘he’s always dressed like Peter Pan, and he carries a sword. Like, all the time’ (Rowell, 2015, p.392). I grinned as Baz skipped between a blunt declaration to himself that he’s ‘hopelessly in love with’ (Rowell, 2015, p.176) Simon Snow to complaining that ‘Snow doesn’t give a shit about waking me up’ (Rowell,2015,p.179).

The characters are written with charm and spark.  They’re never too much of a cardboard cut-out of the character stereotypes they are cast as, which gave their struggle to break free of those roles more depth. I enjoyed this novel so much because of how endearing and interesting the characters are. They are, quite rightfully, the main driving force behind the dismantling of the Harry Potter-esque pop culture framework Rowell throws them in to.

Lauren x

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