I loved many stories before I read Harry Potter, but in terms of Being In A Fandom, HP was my first. I can’t tell you how I first stumbled into fanfiction because I honestly, truly don’t remember, although I do remember spending hours hiding up in my dad’s home office, using his Windows 98 dial-up desktop computer to consume everything from the crackiest humor fics to the kinkiest porn. (I was beginning puberty. Everyone finds out what they like somehow. Sorry, Mom.)
I don’t know if you were part of this zeitgeist of transformative works, dear reader, but if you—like Lady Geek Girl, Luce, and I—were, reading Rainbow Rowell’s newest novel Carry On will feel like coming home.
If you read Rowell’s Fangirl, you’ll remember that the main characters of Cath’s fanfic are Simon Snow and Baz Grimm-Pitch, rivals and roommates at Watford, a school for mages. The Simon and Baz of Fangirl are doubly fictional, creations of Gemma T. Leslie, a JKR-esque author who only exists within the pages of Fangirl itself. After writing that book, though, Rowell found herself still attached to the two characters, and wanted to write her own version of the two boys’ story, rather than doing it the way the fictional Leslie would. That’s how Carry On was born.
Carry On follows Simon as he returns to Watford for his eighth and final year of school, only to find that his roommate Baz is missing. While Simon’s friends Penny and Agatha are pretty uninterested in Baz’s whereabouts, Simon is absolutely certain that Baz is not in school because he’s brewing up some evil plot to foil the magical world’s Chosen One—namely, Simon himself. When Baz finally reappears, however, Simon is forced to forge a temporary alliance with him in order to solve one of the school’s bloodiest mysteries, and they discover that they’re far more powerful when they work magic together. At the same time, they have to avoid the attacks of the Insidious Humdrum, a mysterious, magic-destroying villain who looks just like a young Simon, and try to figure out a way to stop him once and for all.
Rowell is both a lover and writer of fanfiction herself, and Carry On certainly reads like one. I mean that in the best way possible. It has the strong emotional undercurrents that seem unfortunately exclusive to fanfiction when queer romance is involved, and hits all the right beats both in plot twists and personal revelations to get you viscerally hooked into the story. And I mean it about being hooked—I sat down to read a bit of it before a nap, and ended up finishing the book instead of sleeping.
The story is clearly a send-up of Harry Potter, from the magic school to the trio of friends, from the smarmy, pureblood rival and the vaguely amoral headmaster to the villain with a strange and mysterious tie to the Chosen hero. However, it’s also a brilliant homage of the great tropes and twists of the classics of early-millenium Harry/Draco fanfic. I kept being reminded of different stories I’d read back in the day as I tore through the book. The tense alliance between rivals; the sexy, smartass pureblood looking damn fine in tight pants; the questionable morality of the mentor figures; the hero’s obsession with the rival character’s whereabouts (oh wait, that’s just Half-Blood Prince). It gave me flashbacks to everything from Aja’s Love Under Will and Maya’s Underwater Light to Rhysenn’s Irresistible Poison and SilviaKundera’s Deus Ex Machina. (If this has made you nostalgic, there are links to a ton of the late greats of H/D’s yesteryear here, and most of the ones with broken Geocities links—bless—are also on AO3.)
And with a racially diverse cast with multiple queer characters, it blends all the beautiful parts of those fanfics into a story that also appeals to current-day feminist sensibilities, rather than falling into the rightly-scorned “two cis white dudes kiss, but they aren’t gay, they just love each other – and also everyone else is unimportant or evil, especially women” trope.
Don’t get me wrong, though—it doesn’t feel derivative in the derogatory sense of the word. Although it’s easy to draw parallels between the two, Carry On certainly stands on its own in that the characters and the plot are quite different from those of Harry Potter, and that it could easily be enjoyed by someone who is (somehow) totally unfamiliar with the Potter books. I just think that it’s best enjoyed with a working knowledge of both the Harry Potter books and its fandom.
My only complaint about it is that I wish Rowell had made Simon explicitly bisexual rather than having him finish the story identifying as gay, given that he had previously been in a long-term relationship with Agatha. However, I can rationalize this on two fronts—first, it could be argued that Simon’s apathy about being with Agatha was that he was with her because he felt he was supposed to be, rather than being attracted to her, or that he was still figuring things out when they began dating. Secondly, Simon is, in the end, a kind of douchey, out-of-touch-with-his-emotions teenage boy, and possibly doesn’t have the most progressive understanding of how the spectrum of sexuality works, or that it isn’t a binary.
While I liked Fangirl and appreciated its respectful and fun portrayal of what being a member of fandom is like, Carry On is a love letter to fandom in a completely different (and, in my opinion, superior) way. It gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling in my soul every time I think about it, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.
Also, if you wanna get really intertextual, baby, ooh yeah, there is already (impressively, since it’s been out less than a month) a Carry On section on the AO3. Bless.