Carry On Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Harry Potter Series Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Unless you’ve spent the last 15 years in a cave or something, Harry Potter needs no introduction, and I doubt that there’s anything I can say that would convince you to read them if you haven’t already. However, I’m supposed to be reviewing everything on this blog, and the Harry Potter series actually ended up being a big part of my life, so I feel like I’d be remiss not to.

I remember first learning about the series in a Newsweek article about it back in the late 90s, about the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. The premise intrigued me, and I ended up getting the first book as a birthday present for my younger brother. It was a hit with the whole family (minus my mom, who doesn’t like the fantasy genre and refused to try it until years later, when my daughter cajoled her into reading the first book out loud together). Soon after finishing the second and third book, I went off to college, where I was delighted to discover that a bunch of the other girls in my dorm were fans, too. There was an empty room on our floor and we had fun making it “Harry and Ron’s Room” and leaving messages on the whiteboard from Hermione, You-Know-Who, etc. One of my friends even wrote Harry Potter fanfiction (including a fic that ended up being pretty popular), but I didn’t understand the appeal at the time and never really got into it.

A few years passed and I graduated, got married, and continued enjoying the series. Then my husband and I moved across country for the first time, leaving behind our family, friends, and my job. I started working at home, picking up assignments as a freelance writer, but I still had long hours to kill at home while my husband was at work because we didn’t have any children at that point and I was, frankly, too terrified of California drivers to go anywhere. (I learned to drive on the type of rural Nebraska backroads where you wave at other cars as you pass and anything more than three in five minutes qualifies as a traffic jam; Southern California traffic nearly gave me a heart attack.) I was lonesome and bored a lot, and one of the things I missed was talking with my brother and friends for hours about Harry Potter. So I joined the Harry Potter forums at FictionAlley Park. I was intending to hang around for discussion of the books, not fanfiction, but one of the first things I discovered was that I wasn’t the only person who’d always secretly suspected Remus Lupin and Sirius Black of being something more than simple friends. From the HMS Wolfstar threads it was an easy slide into Wolfstar fanfiction, and from there to reading other Harry Potter fanfiction, and from there to writing it myself.

I’ve never looked back.

Although I’m not really an active member of the Harry Potter fandom anymore, it was my gateway fandom and still my most intense and obsessive fannish experience. I miss it.

What was it that so captivated me about the Harry Potter series?

Probably the biggest single factor was the worldbuilding. Despite its periodic issues with dark wizards, anti-Muggle racism, and the like, the wizarding world of Harry Potter is a fantasy world that you want to be a part of.

Rowling’s heavy use of whimsy and clever wordplay gave the wizarding world a rather old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere that felt simultaneously cozy and limitless. Especially in the early books, she did an incredible job capturing Harry’s wonder and awe as he explored his new, magical world.

The characters were another major draw. With a huge and diverse cast of characters to choose from, practically every reader is guaranteed to get attached to someone. Personally, I got attached to many. As a feminist, I especially appreciate the many wonderful and memorable female characters.

Buy at Amazon

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Review

The Harry Potter series got off to a great start with this book, which introduced us to Harry and the Wizarding World and made us instantly fall in love with both. As a fan of both the fantasy and mystery genres, I also enjoyed the clever use of mystery elements in the first three books.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

The weakest of the early books, but still quite good. A much creepier mystery than the first book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Buy at Amazon

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review

My favorite book in the series. The best and most tightly plotted mystery, plus the introduction and largest role for my favorite character in the series, Remus Lupin.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Review

Amazing as it is that JK Rowling had children the world over reading a book longer than The Canterbury Tales, I think Goblet of Fire is where Rowling and her editor started to lose control of the series a bit. The mystery elements were not as well plotted and there was lots of stuff that seemed kind of superfluous and unnecessary. Still enjoyable, but a step down from the previous.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review

I have seriously mixed feelings about Order of the Phoenix. On the one hand, there are few tropes I hate more than prophecy plots. (Ugh.) One of the few happens to be plots that wouldn’t exist if people just sat down and TALKED to each other. Basically the entire plot of this book wouldn’t exist if Dumbledore had just sat Harry down and told him what was going on, and it drives me nuts every time I reread it. Frankly, it ruined my opinion of Dumbledore and I’ve disliked him ever since. Forcing Snape to give Harry occlumency lessons was also inexcusable, imho, both because Harry wouldn’t have needed them so much if Dumbledore had simply told him what sort of manipulations Voldemort would attempt and because Snape is a terrible teacher at the best of times, and even worse than usual with Harry.

On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix has so many of my favorite subplots and scenes it’s probably the book I reread most after Prisoner of Azkaban. I especially love the stuff with Dolores Umbridge (by far the best villain in the series, and one of the best ever written, imho) and the Order itself. As a big Neville fan since book one, it was lovely to see him get to come into his own more with the Order’s help, and I also adored Luna Lovegood, who was introduced in this book.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

My least favorite in the series. I disliked it so much that it’s the only one I’ve never re-read, so I don’t even remember entirely why I disliked it, but a big part of the reason was the amount of focus on Voldemort, who is boring, and Snape, who I hate. The romantic entanglements of the characters were also more annoying than interesting.

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Review

Better than Half-Blood Prince, but just not as satisfying or fun as the early books.

My rating:2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, and one of my favorite comfort reads to this day. This funny and exciting series centers mainly around Cimorene, a very atypical princess who decides to run away from her life in the pleasant but boring kingdom of Linderwall and become a dragon’s princess. Wrede gleefully and hilariously demolishes fairy tale stereotypes and tropes throughout all four books of the series, but in the end its real attraction is its memorable characters. Cimorene, Kazul, Morwen, Telemain, and the rest are like old friends, and I never fail to be cheered up by dipping into their lives.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles is also great feminist fantasy, as it stars multiple intelligent, powerful, and independent-minded female characters and plays with gender roles in interesting ways. In dragon culture, for example, “King” and “Queen” are the names of positions with distinct duties and responsibilities, and the gender of the dragon who holds them is irrelevant. Over the course of the series, there is both a female King of the Dragons, and a male Queen. It’s also suggested that dragons can choose their gender when they reach a certain age, but this is never explicitly stated.

Buy at Amazon

Dealing With Dragons

Book one of the series could easily be read as a stand-alone fantasy novel, but I don’t personally see why anybody would want to. It introduces Cimorene, the dragon Kazul, the witch Morwen, and the dastardly wizards, who Cimorene must foil in between whipping up cherries jubilee for Kazul and trying to get rid of the annoying knights and princes who keep interrupting her work to try and rescue her.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Searching For Dragons

The wizards are at it again! This time they’ve kidnapped Kazul and Cimorene must set off through the unpredictable Enchanted Forest to rescue her. Luckily, her companion is none other than the King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar. I remember being a little disappointed that the story was told from Mendanbar’s point of view when I first started reading this book at age 10 (or so), but it actually ended up being kind of fun seeing Cimorene, Morwen, etc. from somebody else’s point of view, and though I wouldn’t say Mendanbar is Wrede’s most memorable character, he’s certainly one of the nicest, so I couldn’t dislike him for long.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Calling For Dragons

Buy at Amazon

The third book in the series ends on a rather annoying and distressing cliffhanger. Apparently, the fourth book, Talking With Dragons, was actually the first book to be written and published, so by the time Wrede got around to writing Calling With Dragons, she was already stuck with having to make poor Mendanbar disappear for 17 years while Cimorene raised their son without him. Nevertheless, the book is tons of fun, thanks in part to the fact that its main POV character is Morwen, so you can understand her cats. There’s also a 6 foot 11 inch floating blue donkey with wings named Killer (he used to be a rabbit) and lots of witty repartee to liven things up despite the disappointing conclusion, so I’ve always considered it my second favorite after Dealing With Dragons.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Talking With Dragons

Buy at Amazon

A big jump in time and another POV switch, this time to Cimorene’s now 17 year old son Daystar. As I mentioned above, Talking With Dragons was the first book in the series to actually be written, and it follows a somewhat more traditional quest format, with poor Daystar being shoved into the Enchanted Forest with inadequate information (although an excellent education) about what he’s supposed to do and having to unravel it along the way. In the process, he runs into many old friends, including Morwen, Telmain, and Kazul, and makes some new friends of his own.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

If you can find them, I recommend buying the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in hardcover thanks to Trina Schart Hyman’s beautiful cover art:

There is also a story about the Enchanted Forest (set after Talking With Dragons) in Wrede’s short story collection Book of Enchantments. It’s called “Utensile Strength.”