This review is a group review completed by myself and my fellow reviewers and friends Ale and Crystalclear for Cannonball Read bingo. Enjoy!
I very much enjoy that Rainbow Rowell did the most meta thing ever and basically wrote a fan-fic about her own characters that were characters in a fan-fic created by her own characters. I’m still wrapping my own brain around that sentence. But I think it’s a testament to her craft that she had characters that were so nuanced from Fangirl that she could expand them into another two books (note from faintingviolet – Rowell has announced that this will officially be a trilogy). She’s also totally fanning on Harry Potter, and yet even though I knew that all the way through, I didn’t want to do anything but read this book (and I’m already halfway through Wayward Son).
Yup, this… is Harry Potter. I mean, not really, and it’s not a fanfiction fanfiction, but it’s a fanfiction. To make the worst possible comparison, it’s an actual good and not dirty 50 Shades to Twilight, but Harry Potter. That’s bad. That’s not what this is at all. This is taking the ideas and characters of Harry Potter and changing them and creating other plotlines. Simon Snow is the Harry Potter character (but blond!) Baz is the Draco Malfoy (but with black hair!) Penny is the Hermione, and Agatha is the Ginny, I think. (faintingviolet – yep the Ginny comparison works for me.) The Mage is Dumbledore, but more obviously shitty. Simon has a deep well of power that he can’t quite control (a fanfiction trope). Baz is *spoiler* a vampire (another fanfiction trope.) The Mage has an agenda involving politics and does not have Simon’s best interest at heart and is against Baz’s family (which is pretty spot on with Harry Potter, actually.) Knowing this is a fanfiction, you still get to the reveal at the end of Chapter 32 and it’s the big “Yes!” moment.
Rowell definitely takes the story in different directions than Rowling was able to. Then again, Harry Potter was written for kids, and Carry On is not. There are real dangers and real consequences of people’s actions here.
Maybe it’s because we just did an adaptation/retelling book club but this fanfictioned Harry Potter sticks in my brain as a remix. We’ve got all the component parts that Crystalclear has laid out, but this feels inspired by, not traced. It should be noted that I expected no less of the fantastic Rainbow Rowell. She is using meta-textual interaction with Rowling’s series to pull apart and turn Chosen One tropes on their head, and then goes ahead and gives us a yearning gay teen romance for the ages. It’s more than I dared dream it would be.
I think Rowell’s able to take the story to new places because she’s starting her story where Rowling left hers. Rowell alludes to the seven years of Simon’s adventures, but they’re all in the past and we get to focus on how a lifestyle of ‘being the hero,’ has affected Simon (mostly for the worse). Rowell also offers us a window of humanity into the ‘bad’ magicians since not only is Simon forced to share a room with Baz, but in her usual style, Rowell passes the story between her characters, letting us hear from Baz’s point of view. We understand his motives and the reasons his family and the other old families are opposed to the changes being made. They may be wrong (because they are), but we get to understand why they believe what they do, which goes a long way to humanizing the supposed enemy.
Rowell’s ability to build strong characters, and then give them the space to present their worldviews is on full display here. We obviously get it with Baz, but I knew right away that we were in for a very specific kind of reading experience with Penelope’s first chapter. The compassion, love, and fear were palpable in a few short lines. I was invested in a way that I hadn’t been just pages before, and I was pretty invested to start with.
It’s an interesting world that Rowell’s building here in that it’s less like the all encompassing world of Harry Potter, with aurors and a ministry, etc, and more like a big dysfunctional family. All the major families are inter-married in some way, and magic is a purely genetic thing. There are no Hermionies in this world – no magical kids sprouting from non-magical parents. Magic begets magic, and only the wealthy matter. It’s about power and class. So maybe there are magical kids out there with Normal parents, but this society would never know because they don’t acknowledge that it can happen.
I like how we both immediately latched on to the part where they say they have no magical law enforcement. In Harry Potter they at least tried. The Mage has a goon squad, and that’s about it. Then again, The Mage is kind of a crazy garbage person. If something goes wrong, who would anyone report anything to? The Coven? That wouldn’t work very well, seeing as they’re government and probably work at a glacial pace to get anything done.
I was also intrigued by the creatures of this world: vampires, goblins, and numpties, etc. Like in Harry Potter, Magicians are at the top of the hierarchy, the only thing standing between the Normals and their abject destruction at the hands of the ‘dark’ creatures. But their society’s hero-complex is always a little vague… like it’s the lie they tell themselves to validate their superiority complex. This is shown specifically through Agatha’s character, whose own parents don’t seem to understand her wish for a normal teenagehood.
See, I was intrigued by the way the magic worked – both in the ways in which characters felt their magic (which I don’t think we ever got in HP) and also in the mechanics of its functioning. That magic is found in repeating common phrases or lyrics grounded what we were reading while also providing a nice little mental soundtrack.
All I can really say is that this lived up to my hopes. I let this book sit unread on my shelf for years because it was the only unread Rowell novel I had left (it didn’t hurt that it drove Crystalclear nuts). Then this year we got Wayward Son and Pumpkinheads and the promise of more on the way. I’m glad we got Ale on the bandwagon, because sometimes the best part is experiencing things with your friends, and I think the characters would agree with that.