In Which I Talk at Length About Rainbow Rowell’s Simon Snow Trilogy, and Eat Sour Cherry Scones

Okey dokey folks, spoilers for Carry On, Wayward Son, and Any Way the Wind Blows abound from here on out. You have been warned!

What I really want to talk about is the long-term character development in this trilogy. These books, while being a delightfully fun and funny romp through a fantasy world that is highly tongue-in-cheek, nevertheless hit hard on some deep emotional levels.

Make yourself some tea, because I’m about to talk at length (as promised).

Let’s start off with one of my favourite characters in the series: Agatha Wellbelove.

Agatha and Ebb: Lonely Goatherding as Radical Subversion

In Agatha, we get a magical character who is flatly unimpressed with magic. (Can I just tell you how much I love that?) In Carry On, she hates the World of Mages. She’s not that good at casting spells, and furthermore, she doesn’t see the point.

Despite embodying so many fantasy and romance tropes—she is breathtakingly beautiful, frequently helpless, and occupies a space in the upper classes of magickal society—Agatha is actually the biggest misfit there is. When she was Simon’s girlfriend, she fell backwards into the role of the damsel-in-distress during his many adventures, and it could not thrill her less. After they break up, she wants nothing nothing more to do with his missions to save the World of Mages. She’d rather go get a gel manicure.

There are pages ripped out and taped all over one wall. (Not taped—stuck to the wall with spells.) (And this is exactly the sort of thing I’m sick of. Like, just use some tape. Why come up with a spell for sticking paper to the wall? Tape. Exists.)”

Carry On, Chapter 80 (Agatha)

In Wayward Son, Agatha does her damnedest to reject magic. She moves to California, leaving her wand behind in England. When that doesn’t work (there’s nothing like being kidnapped by a wellness cult/vampire cadre to force one back into accepting one’s magic), she returns home and hermits herself away in her childhood bedroom. She still doesn’t want to be magic. But now she is frightened of what can happen to her if she tries to do without it.

Over the course of the third and final book, Any Way the Wind Blows, Agatha inches slowly towards finding herself. We see her make choices because of her own desires, as opposed to making them because they are expected of her, or because she is trying to get away from something. We see her laugh for the first time; we see her excel for the first time; we see her find love on her own terms.

And what does Agatha choose to do? Why, herd goats.

A drawing of a young blonde woman (Agatha), holding a staff. She is sitting on a rock in front of a blue sky with large white clouds. Wings are in the foreground.
Agatha & the Watford goats
Art by mara-miranda. Shared with permission.

One of the things I find so interesting about Agatha’s character arc is the way it parallels the character of Ebb. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around these two and their individual choices to bow out of society. Ebb possesses power that Agatha doesn’t have, and she rejected the expectation that she would pick a side and fight in the war between the Mage and the Old Families.

‘What does being powerful have to do with anything?’ Ebb’ll say. ‘People who are tall aren’t forced to play thrashcanball.’
‘You mean basketball?’ (Living at Watford means Ebb’s a bit out of touch.)
‘Same difference. I’m no soldier. Don’t see why I should have to fight for a living just because I can throw a punch.'”

Carry On, Chapter 2 (Simon)

And so what does Ebb choose to do? WHY, HERD GOATS.

A black-and-white line drawing of a woman in a coat and scarf sitting in a rocking chair by a fireplace. A goat is on her lap, and another lies at her feet. There are two little goat figurines on her mantle.
Ebb & the Watford goats.
Art by mara-miranda. Shared with permission.
A black-and-white line drawing of a cute winged goat hovering over a growing daffodil. The goat has a little smile, and there is an upside-down flower blossom on top of its head.

Both Ebb and Agatha experience trauma in the World of Mages; and neither of them process their trauma in socially acceptable ways. Agatha runs away, shuts down, stops engaging with life, and stays in her room reducing her belongings to ash. Ebb’s grief, despite being decades old, still manifests as frequent crying. They refuse to stiff-upper-lip it. People don’t know what to do with them.

Ebb was an incredibly powerful mage. Agatha was beautiful and well positioned to take her place in society. Their choice to go off to live in a barn and herd goats, albeit magickal ones, is an amazing and deeply subversive “fuck you” to the expectations that were foisted upon them. To hell with your happily ever afters and your cookie cutter characters. These women won’t be pigeonholed.

And they are linked by more than just the goats. Ebb saves Agatha’s life at the end of Carry On, and is then herself killed by the Mage, a heartbreakingly tragic and senseless death. In more ways than one she paves the way for Agatha to find her own path—yes, she sacrifices herself to save Agatha, but she also gives her permission to bow out, and she shows her that rebellion is possible.

I feel like I should say something more to the dryad—
No. I feel like I should say something to Ebb.
I look up at her stone marker. There are flowers growing all around it, vines winding up and around the marble. I didn’t notice that before.
The dryad is watching me from a few feet away.
I whisper to the stone: ‘I did what you told me to do. I ran.'”

Any Way the Wind Blows, Chapter 80 (Agatha)

Penelope Bunce: A Fierce Magician, I’ve Never Minded Saying It

I’ll admit it right off the bat: Penny was not my favourite character in Carry On. But WHY, I asked myself, would I not care for the Strong Female Lead™? A conundrum. Until a sneaking suspicion crept in that Penny mirrored some traits of my own that I am not overly thrilled with. (Namely stubbornness and a wee tendency towards not always giving people credit for knowing what is best for themselves.) Penny is also (and here we differ) emphatically not interested in engaging with people in general, nor does she seem to have a great deal of empathy for others. She knows she is a smart cookie, and she simply doesn’t have time for other people’s nonsense.

Simon’s never said it, but Baz has: ‘You think you’re always right, Bunce.’
So what if I do? I usually am right. It’s just good sense to go through life assuming that I am. It’s the law of averages. Better to assume I’m always right and occasionally be wrong than to fiddle about doubting myself all the time, saying to everyone, ‘Yes, but what do you think?’
I’m very good at thinking!”

Wayward Son, Chapter 19 (Penelope)

But starting in Wayward Son and continuing from there, Penny gets hit with a metaphorical ton of bricks. She realizes that she is wrong about something pretty big, and in a snowball effect during this and the next book, she realizes that she is wrong about things over and over again.

And I really started to like her.

When Penelope begins to doubt herself, she experiences something of a dark night of the soul. I’ve been there, Penny—when something rocks your foundation, it’s hard to tell how much of your life and belief system you should be questioning, and both Penny and I defaulted to: everything. I identified hard with her arc through Wayward Son and Any Way the Wind Blows. There are large swathes of these books in which she is rendered incapable of doing anything because her self-doubt looms so large.

How am I supposed to operate like this? How do wrong people do it? (I am a wrong person now. I’m one of them!) How am I supposed to make even basic decisions now that I know how little I know?”

Any Way the Wind Blows, Chapter 10 (Penelope)

What’s great about Penelope’s arc is that she works her way through the doubt. She’s right—she is good at thinking. And in book three we get to see her using that skill in a way that is a little more considered and a little more forgiving. She loses some of the inflexibility and judgment that she learned from her mother, and figures out that the world isn’t starkly divided into right and wrong, good and evil. She doesn’t lose any of her fierceness—but she gains the ability to listen, and to be like the metaphorical tree that bends so it doesn’t break. As far as this trilogy is concerned, Penny’s arc is one of the more subtle ones. But by the end, she is more of a force to be reckoned with than ever.

A curvy girl with brown skin and hair and cat eye glasses has her hands in the air and a smile on her face. Purple shimmery lines are swirling around her, coming from a glowing purple gemstone that she wears in a ring on her finger.
Penelope Bunce and her magic ring
Art by Venessa Kelley of VKelleyArt. Shared with permission.

Baz: He May Be Dead, But He Isn’t Lost

Baz is, hands-down, my favourite character in this series. He’s whip-smart, full of sass, has terrific fashion sense, and appreciates the audacity of a bold, dramatic move. Dramatics are in his blood—his name isn’t Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch for nothing.

Go ahead and shoot me. This isn’t my favourite shirt.”

Wayward Son, Chapter 63 (Baz)

He’s also got a sweet and soft heart tucked away underneath those expensive clothes. We see it when he rushes to protect the dragon, we see it in the friendship that he develops with Penny, and we see it in his affectionate interactions with his younger siblings. But we see it most of all in his loving treatment of Simon, which remains consistently thoughtful and tender throughout the trilogy.

Baz doesn’t have your typical redemption arc, because he’s not your typical villain. In fact, he’s not a villain at all—he never was. What he is, is a person who has been used and leveraged by his family in a series of political power plays, at the same time as they refused to openly acknowledge or accept two essential parts of who he is—namely that he is a vampire, and that he is gay.

And so while Baz has grown up with a substantial amount of wealth and privilege, he has also grown up with a clear message that at his core he is unacceptable and unlovable. A villain; worse—an abomination. His mother immolated herself the moment she was bitten by a vampire, and Baz is haunted by the thought that if she were alive, she would not let him live. It is through his relationship with Simon (and to some degree his friendship with Penny) that he begins to accept that maybe he isn’t truly a monster. Simon accepts and believes in Baz in a way that Baz himself does not.

‘And you still don’t believe that I’m dead.’
He shakes his head once, firmly. ‘I do not believe that you’re dead.’
We’re at my driveway now, and I turn in. ‘Sunlight burns me,’ I say.
He shrugs. ‘Me, too.'”

Carry On, Chapter 62 (Baz)

Baz’s arc is in two pieces. In Carry On, he’s trying to figure out to be a good Pitch, how to reconcile that with being in love with Simon Snow, and how to reconcile all of it with being a vampire. His identity is tied up in his performance of villainy, and in order to team up with Simon and Penny, i.e. the “good guys,” he has to let at least some of that go.

In Wayward Son, Baz is focused primarily on supporting Simon through his PTSD, but he does begin to learn more about his abilities and limitations as a vampire, things he keeps in a mental scoresheet for/against himself. This second piece of Baz’s arc unfolds further in Any Way the Wind Blows, when, while navigating a delicate new stage in his romance with Simon that has him constantly fearing rejection, he comes face to face with the consequences of the one bad thing he actually did back in their fifth year at school, which resulted in an innocent girl losing her voice, and therefore her magic.

Fiona and Baz
Art by Venessa Kelley of VKelleyArt. Shared with permission.

This is a moment when Baz has to really reckon with his past and his future. Teetering between his entrenched self-loathing and his nascent self-acceptance, he lies in bed and tallies up everything he’s ever done, trying to figure out what harm he’s caused. He has a fight with Fiona, who used him. Finally, he spills the beans to Simon and Penny.

Penelope looks unimpressed. ‘Do you want us to say that you’re bad? Fine, you’re very bad.’
‘That’s not—’
She rolls her eyes. ‘You did something unconscionable because an adult you trusted said it would matter. Join the fucking club, Basilton.'”

Any Way the Wind Blows, Chapter 64 (Simon)

And then Baz does the only thing that really matters: he makes amends. He can’t give Pippa back the five years of her life that she’s lost, nor can he erase the harm that he did. But he can question and reflect on his actions and learn from them, and he does. He can get Pippa’s voice back to her now, and he does. He can apologize, and he does. He can let her go without selfishly demanding her forgiveness—and he does. He doesn’t hesitate for a single second.

And that, my friends, is how you do redemption.

Oh goodness me, is that a 6 foot tall cardboard standee of Baz in his flowered suit from Rainbow Rowell’s official DFTBA store? Why yes, yes it is.

Simon: Forget the Hero’s Journey. This is a Heroine’s Journey.

Chosen Ones are always going on hero’s journeys. (I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker and Frodo.) You’re probably familiar with the hero’s journey structure: the call to action, the trials and challenges, increased isolation and self-reliance, the descent and eventual bittersweet triumph and reward—bittersweet because the hero has changed and can no longer go back to their community.

This is not Simon Snow’s story.

In her excellent book The Heroine’s Journey, Gail Carriger outlines this less-talked-about but still very prevalent story structure. It looks a little something like this: broken familial or community network, involuntary withdrawal, a search for solutions, some dangerous isolation, help from family/friends, the rebuilding of the network and community.

Sound a little more familiar?

In Carry On, Simon loses huge parts of his already precarious network: the Mage, Ebb, Agatha and her family. He also loses the one thing that connected him to that network—his magic. From the get-go, Simon is a character who thrives on relationships and community, and his tragedy is that he has so little of it. When Simon and Baz start to explore their feelings for each other, Simon is far less hesitant than Baz. He’s wired for connection; isolation is his kryptonite. He’s full of love, and sharing it is as natural to him as breathing.

‘You’re not listening to me at all, are you?’
‘I am,’ I say. ‘But you’re wrong. Nothing’s going back to normal after this. How could it?’
‘Because we’re friends now?’
‘Because we’re more than that.’
Baz picks up a poker and jabs at the fire. ‘One kiss, and you think the world is upside down.’
‘Two kisses,’ I say. And I take him by the back of his neck.”

Carry On, Chapter 62 (Simon)

In Wayward Son and the beginning of Any Way the Wind Blows, we see the dangers of isolation for Simon. With the loss of his magic, he is pushing everyone away and hanging on by a thread. This is his involuntary withdrawal—losing his magic thrusts Simon back into feeling the way he did as a “Normal” child growing up in care homes: unnecessary, unwanted, utterly alone, and desperately lonely. While the World of Mages is falling prey to dangerous new “Chosen One” rackets and old petty grievances, Simon is paralyzed by his isolation. It takes the help of family and friends—new and old—to restore him to his true self, the one who is capable of solving problems and rebuilding community on a grander level.

Baz does a lot of the heavy lifting here in helping Simon reconnect. The Simon/Baz romance in Any Way the Wind Blows is deeply satisfying because we get to see two people communicating in healthy ways, being self-aware when unhealthy patterns start to kick in, supporting each other in loving and tender ways, getting increasingly intimate, and overcoming challenges together.

But there is other relationship-building in this book as well. Lady Ruth plays a key part, and her affection for and acceptance of both Simon and Baz is lovely and touching, especially because we know that she is Simon’s biological grandmother. In the latter part of the book, Penelope and Shepard get back in the mix, and Agatha and Niamh too have small roles to play in helping Simon feel once again integrated into the community. The same community that he then proceeds to save (again) from the latest threat to magic, the hilariously named villain Smith Smith-Richards. By the time this particular adventure ends, even Daphne, Baz’s stepmum, hints at the possibility of future family gatherings that could welcome Simon as Baz’s partner, much to Baz’s shock.

Having reunited Lady Ruth with her son (more relationship-healing!), Simon proceeds to casually pull the Excalibur sword that was made for the House of Salisbury out of Lady Ruth’s dining room table, and thus unwittingly reveals himself to be the son of Lucy and the Mage. This is understandably painful for him, and his knee-jerk reaction is to default to his fear of rejection; he apologizes again and again. Lady Ruth and Jamie counter this with their genuine joy at having found him.

‘We’re your family,’ Jamie says again, clapping Simon on the shoulder. ‘We’ve been looking for you for so long, and now you’re here. We’re well chuffed!’
Simon is looking into Salisbury’s eyes. They’re about the same height. The more I look at them—at Lady Ruth, at these photos of Lucy—the more I see. The more he seems to belong here among them.”

Any Way the Wind Blows, Chapter 88 (Baz)

By the end of the trilogy, Simon has rejoined the World of Mages on his own terms, and he is surrounded by a bigger network of family and friends than ever. His journey has taken him from a place of loneliness and insecurity to a place of unconditional acceptance and community. Although there is still healing to be done, the precarity of Simon Snow’s belonging is in the past; he is here, and he is loved, and all is right with the world.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Simon and Baz lay on a bed together. Baz is on his back, wearing a white t-shirt. His arms are around Simon, who is partially laying on top of him, with his head in the crook of Baz's neck. His wings are up around them, and both have their eyes closed.
Simon and Baz
Art by Venessa Kelley of VKelleyArt. Shared with permission.

Thanks for joining me on my very long ramble about the Simon Snow trilogy. I assume if you have made it this far that you are also a fan of these books, so I would love to hear your thoughts and opinions in the comments! If for some strange reason you read this post without having read the trilogy, what are you waiting for?!

Huge thanks to VKelleyArt and mara-miranda for graciously giving me permission to share their amazing art. ❤ I’ll leave you with a link to a comic by mara-miranda that illustrates one of my fave interactions between Baz and Fiona. Enjoy!

***

P.S. For those who enjoy audiobooks, there is an incredible edition of this trilogy read by Euan Morton, who does a top-notch job nailing everyone’s distinct voices. Highly recommend!

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