I’ve been a fan of Rainbow Rowell for a long time. She is one of my all-time favourite comfort-read authors, and Fangirl has long been my number one pick of her books (I wrote one of my first blog posts about it). However, these days the Simon Snow trilogy has elbowed its way to the top of my comfort reading list, and I’m here to talk about why.
But first, two things:
- There is context to the origin of these books, which have their beginnings in the novel Fangirl. I have TOO MUCH to say about the trilogy itself to write about the fanfiction meta-extravaganza that is the Simon Snow book series. You can read about it in this NPR article by an author I love, Amal El-Mohtar, and also listen to this excellent and hilarious episode of Witch, Please where they deconstruct Carry On as a Harry Potter intertext. For me, the Simon Snow trilogy far surpasses its origins as such and stands firmly on its own two feet—but the episode is still fun and informative. (And a side-side note for those unfamiliar with the Witch, Please podcast: if the mention of HP makes you nervous/angry, fear not! Witch, Please is a strongly anti-TERF platform.)
- A note to acknowledge that there is significant criticism of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Eleanor & Park, which features a Korean character and which many readers have found to be racist. I am saddened that Rainbow Rowell has not properly responded to these critiques. Here is an article by Laurelei Bautistta that discusses the racism in Eleanor & Park. It seems to me that Rowell has grown as a writer since then — the Simon Snow trilogy features a diverse cast and is written with sensitivity — I think. (As a white reader, I am aware that my lens is such that I sometimes miss things, but I have not found any critiques online of racism in these books.) It looks to me like Rowell took the criticism and is learning from it; I wish she hadn’t skipped the part of being publicly accountable for her mistakes. These things matter!
And now, on to the Simon Snow books.
This fantasy trilogy features smart and witty dialogue, heartwarming romance, a fun and complex magic system, thought-provoking emotional engagement, and a thoroughly entertaining series of “magical boarding school” and “chosen one” tropes getting flipped upside down.
But the most important thing that I want to talk about is the characters. They are just so well drawn; it’s hard to emerge from these books and not love each and every one of the protagonists. From Simon, with his blustery, good-natured impulsiveness to Baz, with his sarcastic arrogance that conceals a bruised and tender heart; from Penny’s fierce, no-nonsense intelligence and loyalty to Agatha’s impatient and subversive clarity, these are people who you can’t help caring about.
As the books progress, we also come to love Shepard, the improbably friendly and honest foil to every kind of plot, Niamh, the blunt and unapologetic champion of the Watford goats, and the Salisburys, who as a family display a remarkably consistent tendency towards well-meaning obliviousness. (And let us not leave out Baz’s Aunt Fiona, for whom I have a soft spot because of her snark and her rebelliousness and her bad decision-making.)
Clockwise from L-R: Simon and Baz, Penelope and Agatha, Shepard.
Art by Venessa Kelley of VKelleyArt. Shared with permission.
We fall for these characters via a pretty simple device: multiple POV voices. The books give nearly everyone a chance to speak, sometimes flipping back and forth between more than one perspective several times in a single chapter. Rainbow Rowell has always been skilled at character voice and dialogue, and this ability really shines in the Simon Snow books. It’s easy to distinguish between who is speaking (it would be easy even if each section wasn’t titled with the POV character’s name), because everyone has distinct ways of thinking and speaking. We also get to see the contrasts between what characters think of themselves and the way others see them. This particularly pulls on the old heartstrings when it comes to the romance between Simon and Baz.
This choice to show the story through multiple lenses also paves the way for one of the more controversial aspects of these books — the fact that we, as readers, see and understand things that the characters never learn. I loved this element to the story, though I know that some readers found it frustrating. Although it feels odd to say but that’s the way life really is when discussing books that feature magic wands (and belt buckles), dragons, vampires, winged goats, and the rarest of all creatures, the river phoenix (wink, wink), their tether to the realities of the world via the characters’ experiences with trauma, abuse, confusion, and self-doubt are part of what makes this trilogy such a fulfilling reading experience.
One of the throughlines in the trilogy is Simon’s struggle to figure out who he is and to accept himself. This is tied up not only with his magic, but also with his history of abandonment and childhood trauma, as well as with his queer identity. In the World of Mages (i.e. the magickal community in Britain), being a good magician is not simple, nor is it easy. Simon, though wildly powerful, struggles with it.
The magic system is one that will delight all those who love words, since it is based on language.
Words are very powerful… And they become more powerful, the more that they’re said and read and written, in specific, consistent combinations. The key to casting a spell is tapping into that power. Not just saying the words, but summoning their meaning.”Carry On, Chapter 17 (Simon)
The magic spells in these books range from song lyrics and literary quotes to idioms, from catchphrases and memes to poems. Some of the most powerful spells are nursery rhymes and lullabies. There is an intriguing moment when Baz summons faraway and lost items by singing “Amazing Grace” with the help of Penny, telling her, “Our ancestors cast in choirs” (Wayward Son, Chapter 32).
One of the reasons that Simon struggles with his magic is because he is not good with words. He stutters. He splutters. This is, in part, why the Mage refers to Simon as a “damaged vessel” and is disappointed in him. Of course the heartbreaking irony is that the Mage abandoned Simon as a baby, leaving him to be brought up in the foster care system. The trauma he experienced as a child, and continues to experience every summer back in care, is never explicitly described. But Simon has no clear memories of his childhood before coming to Watford School of Magicks, which is telling in itself.
Snow blusters like no one else. But! I! I mean! Um! It’s just! It’s no wonder he can never spit out a spell.”Carry On, Chapter 30 (Baz)
None of it comes naturally to me. Words. Language. Speaking. I don’t remember when I learned to talk, but I know they tried to send me to specialists. Apparently, that can happen to kids in care, or kids with parents who never talk to them—they just don’t learn how.”Carry On, Chapter 17, (Simon)
Being good at magic requires not only a deep reservoir to hold it (which seems to be random and possibly genetic), but also the ability to be articulate, confident, quick on your feet, and able to see how metaphor can translate into a concrete action. It’s a tall order, and it’s not surprising that there are relatively few really skilled magicians in the series. In addition to having specific aptitudes, it also requires you to be a reasonably well-adjusted person. It’s a brilliant choice on the part of the author, because it sets us up to see exactly how each character is damaged.
I’m certain that Rainbow Rowell must have had a very fun time coming up with the spells that the characters cast. Some of my favourites include Make a wish! (extinguishes fire), Early to bed and early to rise (a healing spell), and These aren’t the droids you’re looking for (makes the object invisible). And, of course, the spell that Baz casts to reach Simon when he is in danger:
‘On love’s light wings!’Carry On, Chapter 83 (Baz)
It’s a hard spell and an old spell, and it works only if you understand the Great Vowel Shift of the Sixteenth Century—and if you’re stupidly in love.”
If you haven’t read the Simon Snow books, and you are a fan of smart and funny contemporary fantasy with terrific character arcs and romance that just might dissolve you into a puddle, then do yourself a favour and dash off to find these books.
I have lots more to say in the next section of this review (it covers three books, okay?!) but after the page break I’m going to go ahead and spoil a whole bunch of things. So definitely read these books before you keep reading!
For further musings containing spoilers, scroll down to click on Page 2, and carry on. (See what I did there?)