Imagine a world where mages and magical creatures exist under our noses, and where vine references and song lyrics become spells. In Rainbow Rowell’s “Carry On” that world comes to life. Complete with political critiques and a sprinkling of swear words, “Carry On” is the perfect novel for the modern-minded fantasy fan.
The story follows four young mages as they attend the Watford School of Magicks. The main character is dashing Simon Snow, a classic chosen-one trope in every way - except that he’s awful at doing magic, the one thing he’s supposed to be great at. He and his best friend Penelope spend their final year at school trying to find and defeat The Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious character who’s creating magical dead-zones and constantly sending creatures to kill Simon. Meanwhile, Simon’s roommate, Baz, whom he hates with a burning passion, has gone missing and his relationship with his girlfriend, Agatha, becomes testy.
If this sounds a little familiar, that’s because it is. Simon and Baz were characters first mentioned in Rowell’s novel “Fangirl”, where the protagonist wrote “Harry Potter''-esque fanfiction. Rowell loved the characters so much that she decided to write them a book of their own. While Watford may bear a striking resemblance to Hogwarts, the tone and themes of “Carry On” are more mature than in “Harry Potter.” In her magical world, J. K. Rowling has faced criticism for poor racial diversity, queerbaiting, and the rigid classification of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. Rowell stares these issues in the face and makes some of them central themes in her story.
Although the World of Mages is cleverly thought out and creates an exciting stage for the story, the novel thrives because of how complex the characters are. Rowell constantly examines the characters throughout the story, turning them around so the reader can see the many sides that make them up. Because the point of view changes with the chapters, readers are able to gain a clear understanding of each character’s motivations and worldview. This also allows the reader to slowly piece together the mystery lurking behind the plot. The character’s decisions, for better or worse, drive the story forward at a riveting pace.
The complexity of the characters also allows Rowell to explore a deeper theme in the writing; None of the “Carry On” characters are inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, they all exist on a moral spectrum, where Rowell lets them move freely. This depiction is often missed in fiction, instead favoring the classic hero versus villain setup. But real life isn’t that black and white, and Rowell does a great job of capturing that. By depicting relatable characters who aren’t tied to a single moral standing, Rowell creates an incredibly validating experience for her readers. All of this is accomplished in a way that doesn’t feel forced on the reader, but instead grows with the story.
The youthful tone and upbeat pace of this story makes it a perfect read for young adults that miss the ignorant bliss of the “Harry Potter” world they loved as a kid. It’s a lengthy read, but it goes by quickly because it’s nearly impossible to put down. And after you’ve blown through the first one, you can move on to the sequel, “Wayward Son”, and look forward to the pending release of the final book in the trilogy.
By Dale Mott-Slater