‘The worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen’

'Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow' offers an unconventional take on the 'Chosen One' genre

With the recent release to cinemas of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the ‘Chosen One’ genre is once again at the forefront of popular culture (not that it ever leaves for long…). What is the ‘Chosen One’ genre? Well, pretty much what it says on the tin: think Star Wars, think Lord of the Rings, think Harry Potter, think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, think young character goes on quest to defeat great evil with ragtag bunch of friends and mentorship from a figure of wisdom (often beardy and old though as far as I can tell that is not actually a requirement).

In thinking about chosen ones, then, I turned to Rainbow Rowell’s 2015 novel Carry On: The Rise and Fall of Simon Snow. Simon is perhaps unique in the genre in that he exists to be a chosen one figure; the character was in fact created initially for Rowell’s earlier novel Fangirl, as a fictional Harry Potter-type that the main character, Cath, could write fan fiction about. In Carry On itself, Simon is pitched as ‘the worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen’. We’ve been promised a Chosen One, been promised a quest; on the face of it, there is no ambiguity about what kind of story to expect.

And that is exactly the delight of Rowell’s work. This is a woman who knows her chosen ones and so a ‘Chosen One’ story is what you get. We’ve got our resistant hero (Simon), his slightly questionable mentor (The Mage), more intelligent best friend (Penny), enemy (Baz) and actual nemesis (The Insidious Humdrum). It really is a ‘Chosen One’ story. But it is also conscious enough of its own genre to be able to poke fun at it and, most importantly, at itself (like Guardians of the Galaxy kind of does for the superhero genre and Marvel Comics).

I mean for starters: Insidious Humdrum. As is said in Fangirl, it really does sound a bit like the name of an ‘ice-cream sundae’. Then, there are spells that come from advertising slogans like ‘Have a break. Have a Kit Kat’ because in this world, words gain and lose power by being repeated. The novel, on multiple counts, is self-consciously ridiculous.

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When Simon’s world (the World of Mages) was first introduced in Fangirl, reviewers criticised it for feeling like a sort of poor person’s Wizarding World – but, rather than shying away from the similarities, Carry On actively invites the comparison. It dares the reader to call it a rip-off by playing up to what the novels have in common only to reveal itself as completely its own (as much as any work ever is).

Simon is endearingly useless and clueless. But the shifting narrative perspective serves to remind the reader of what is often overlooked in the ‘Chosen One’ genre: although this is Simon’s story, it is not just Simon’s story. The Chosen One’s actions have consequences and, in this novel, we get to see them and feel them. In many ways the quest, a key part of the genre, falls into the background of Carry On. Because we know the premise (or think we do), Rowell is left with room to do what she does best and write about people, these people—rising, falling, falling in love.

Don’t skip a trip to see Star Wars, but maybe on your way home pick up a copy of Carry On too. For the ‘worst Chosen One who’s ever been chosen’, it’s a damn good choice.