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Rowell-Wind-Blows-Snow3-coverHaving dealt with murder, depression and, demons, shouted defiance and questioned reality, Queen’s iconic anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” ends softly and quietly with “Any way the wind blows.” So, too, Rainbow Rowell’s trilogy about Simon Snow—an orphan who learned he was the Chosen One, went to British magic school, fell in love, vanquished a great evil, and then had to learn what to do afterwards.

You might not know Simon’s name, but his story is probably familiar. He first appeared in Rowell’s novel, Fangirl (2013)—a coming-of-age YA romance about a university student, Cath, who writes gay, enemies-to-lovers fanfiction for a series a bit like Harry Potter. In fictional author Gemma T. Leslie’s stories, Simon Snow is a teenage hero, who battles against the Insidious Humdrum: a being intent on destroying all magic. We also meet Simon’s super-smart best friend Penelope “Penny” Bunce; his girlfriend Agatha Wellbelove; and his rich, arrogant, and possibly evil nemesis: Tyrannus Basilton “Baz” Pitch.

Fangirl makes no attempt to hide the fact that Simon and Baz are essentially Harry Potter and his schoolboy rival, Draco Malfoy. (Except that Baz is a vampire, and he and Simon are roommates: both popular fanfiction tropes that increase the tension of the scenario.) The romantic pairing of Harry and Draco (known as Harry/Draco or “Drarry”) has long been one of the most popular fanfiction pairings or ships (an abbreviation of relationship), with over 50,000 works currently published on panfandom fanfiction archive AO3.[1] Potter is also widely known around the world, unlike other popular fandoms, such as the television show Teen Wolf. It therefore makes sense to use Harry and Draco as a template for a popular fannish ship.

Rowell-Fangirl-coverFangirl is a genuinely good, likeable, and engaging romance. It also doesn’t phone in the Simon Snow universe (there are lots of interesting new ideas, including a magic system based on popular phrases), but what’s fascinating about it is how it engages with fanfiction. For a start, Cath doesn’t learn she has to grow up and get over fanfiction in order to live a normal life, get the guy, and be a real writer. In fact, her love for the Simon Snow series is what brings her together with her eventual boyfriend Levi and reunites her with her twin sister, Wren. By doing this, I’d argue Fangirl joins Galaxy Quest (one of the greatest movies of all time) and a small number of other texts in celebrating fandom’s importance in people’s lives.

More than that, though, the novel actively engages with fanfiction as text. Consequently, it does something very interesting with the way it treats Simon, Baz, and the other characters. It’s a bit like Sliding Doors: Cath’s version of Simon and Baz are the same Simon and Baz “created by” Leslie, but they’re simultaneously different. The characters are even (arguably) different between Cath’s fics, as they have different histories. In the story Cath reads to Levi, Baz becomes a vampire as a child after being attacked in the Watford nursery. But, Cath explains, this doesn’t happen in the “real” version or other fics she’s written. “Just in this story. Every story is different.” Rowell claims not to be a fanfiction writer, but she’s clearly read a lot of it. The fanfic excerpts in Fangirl include popular, pervasive fic styles including a Five Times fic, a fic entirely in dialogue, and a fluffy Christmas one-shot where Simon and Baz hold hands for the first time.

I’ve always assumed Rowell created her own version of the characters and universe for copyright reasons, rather than trying to argue fair use the way fannish authors do. However, Rowell may also now be glad to be able to distance herself from Rowling, given how outspoken the latter has been recently on the transgender community. This review isn’t the place to discuss whether Rowling is right (she isn’t), but it’s worth saying that if you like Potter, but find it hard to read, given Rowling’s views, you might enjoy this more LGBT+ friendly magic-school story (and what happens afterwards). You might also think Rowell doesn’t go far enough, but I’ll talk more about that later.

Rowell-Carry-On-Snow-1-coverTwo years after Fangirl’s release, Rowell published her own version of Simon’s eighth year at Watford School of Magicks: Carry On (2015). The novel picks up on and enriches most of the tantalising hints about the world dropped in Fangirl: the Humdrum looks like Simon aged eleven, the Mage is Simon’s father, Simon and Baz have an intense, homoerotic rivalry.

Rowell-Wayward-Son-Snow-2-coverWhile the novel is named after an epic fanfic that Cath is working on in Fangirl, Carry On is demonstrably neither that fic, nor the “canonical” works written by Gemma T. Leslie. Rowell says in an Author’s Note at the end of the book: “I’d written so much about him through these other voices and I kept thinking about what I’d do with him if he were in my story, instead of Cath’s or Gemma’s … I’ve read and loved so many magical Chosen One stories—how would I write my own?” What was originally intended to be a standalone novel was followed by a sequel four years later: Wayward Son (2019). The final book in the trilogy—Any Way the Wind Blows—was announced a week later and published in 2021.

I opened this review by describing Any Way the Wind Blows (AWTWB) as being soft and quiet. You might think that means I think it’s bad; I don’t. At a high level, I think Fangirl is good, Carry On is very good, Wayward Son is not really for me, and AWTWB is the perfect book to read during a pandemic if you love the characters from the previous novels: both comforting and rewarding.

I do love the characters. Metafictionally, I also find it interesting that here’s yet another version of the same people and Rowell asks us to understand that all of them are true at the same time. In the Simon Snow trilogy, Simon the hero, Baz the vampire roommate, Penny the best friend, and Agatha the ex-girlfriend are much richer than they were in the “canon” Leslie novels from Fangirl or Cath’s fanfiction, while also being (particularly in Carry On) active critiques of the roles they ought to be playing. In an interesting twist, the characters are all aware they’re part of a Chosen One narrative, thanks to the prophecy, and most of them wish they weren’t.

Unlike Fangirl, the Simon Snow trilogy is written in the first person, with sections told from the perspective of even very minor characters. This means you get to know a large number of characters and viewpoints very well over the series. There are good female characters, particularly Penny, who hates most people but chose to befriend Simon because her mother told her that no one knew where he came from and he might be dangerous, and Fiona—Baz’s deranged aunt, who leads most of the schemes against Simon and his mentor. These schemes range from actual murder to sneaking into the Mage’s office and leaving steaming piles of shit on his bed. (I could take or leave Agatha, who isn’t usually very interested in the plot, but that’s a personal choice. She’s all right.) Most of the walk-on characters have a fun detail attached to them, so they’re memorable despite next to no lines. Simon’s classmate, Gareth, for example, is unfortunate enough to have a belt buckle as a magical implement instead of a wand. “It’s really inconvenient,” Simon tells us. “He has to thrust his pelvis forward whenever he wants to cast a spell. He seems to think it’s cheeky, but no one else does.”

However, despite a rich wider cast, the series rises and falls on your interest in the central duo. Rowell’s background is as a romance and Young Adult romance author, best known for 2012’s Eleanor & Park. Her novels aren’t Mills & Boon-esque by any means, but the first rule of writing for the big romance publishing house still applies: “At the heart of all great romances are two strong, appealing, sympathetic and three-dimensional characters.” In Eleanor & Park, it’s … well, Eleanor and Park; Fangirl, it’s Cath and Levi. In Carry On and the rest of the trilogy, it’s Simon and Baz.

This Simon is (according to Baz) “the worst Chosen One ever chosen.” Apparently prophesied to save the World of Mages, Simon is the most powerful magician ever born, but he can’t control that power and isn’t good with words—the currency of this particular magical world. He solves problems with a sword, by “going off” (basically exploding with frustrated energy in a way that disintegrates his opponent), or by not thinking about them. He hasn’t thought about whether he’s gay or in love with Baz either—because, he tells Baz, he’s “got a lot on his plate.” He’s also endearingly resigned to this situation:

“In the end, I just do what’s expected of me. When the Humdrum comes after me, I fight him. When he sends dragons, I kill them. ... I don’t get to choose or plan. I just take it as it comes. And someday, something will catch me unawares or be too big to fight, but I’ll fight it anyway. I’ll fight until I can’t anymore—what is there to think about?” (Carry On)

Baz himself is depressed, dramatic, actively identifies as gay, and has been secretly in love with Simon for years. He’s missing for the first hundred or so pages of Carry On, which allows all the other characters to talk about him, and when he reappears the novel feels like it’s stepped up a gear:

It’s unnecessarily grandiose to use an Open Sesame on the doors, but I do it anyway because I know everyone will be in the dining hall, and I may as well make an entrance.

I wanted it this way. I wanted to be the only person who got to break the news that I’m back. (Carry On)

Incidentally, “Open Sesame” is a spell in this universe, where that magic system is based on well-known phrases rather than cod-Latin. If a character wants to put out a fire, they’ll cast “Make a wish”; when Simon wants to get blood out of his trousers, he casts, “Out, out, damn spot.” (Or tries to—it doesn’t really work.) The conceit is that words take on more power the more they’re spoken. The more they’re said and read and written, in specific, consistent combinations.” (Fangirl)

The idea of words being magical either appeals to you or it doesn’t—or worse, it used to appeal to you and now you feel embarrassed about how earnest you were as a teenager. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Magicians in this world draw power from Normals (Muggles) talking to each other, and it’s a plot point in Wayward Son that where there aren’t any Normals—like the unoccupied bits of Nebraska, America—there isn’t any magic. Something like “make a wish” also doesn’t obviously connect to fire—it’s only because most readers understand the context of blowing out birthday candles that the words can accomplish what they do. Examples like this make me feel like I understand how magic could work in this universe, which makes me feel clever, which is part of why I enjoy it.

Baz is exactly the kind of character fandom wishes Draco Malfoy was: always well dressed, usually ready with a clever put-down, and very sad on the inside. If this is the kind of character you want to punch, then you’re probably already thinking about punching him, which he probably deserves. But, if this is the kind of character you like, there’s a good chance you’ll like this book.

Baz’s character arc is one of the most satisfying elements of the trilogy. He’s always been afraid and trying to be what he thought his family wanted him to be, but his relationship with Simon and his friendship with Penny helps him work out who he actually is. The clothes and the witty put-downs are still important, but he’s also kind, thoughtful, and self-reflective. In Carry On, he relates an incident that happened when he and Simon were fifteen: one of his family’s unsuccessful plots to maim Simon, which apparently cost an innocent bystander her voice. His aunt put him up to it and wasn’t bothered by what happened, which is all that Baz has to say about the matter. By AWTWB, he’s consumed with guilt when he runs into the victim again, actively works to make the situation better, and confronts his aunt. This plotline clearly reframes what Baz and his family did as unacceptable, underlining the message that Baz was a child at the time and has since grown up, forming different opinions, which he acts on.

Like Harry and Draco, Simon and Baz are supposedly enemies and have been since their first year at Watford. The plot gives them a clever reason to work together, and during that time Baz shows Simon that he can be selfless, brave, and vulnerable, as well as just a hot but compelling git. When they kiss, it’s a surprise, but it’s also entirely earned.

That novel ends with them falling in love and saving the day together. In another series, that would have been the end, but it’s just the beginning of Rowell’s trilogy, which wants to know what happens after “Simon Snow did what he had to do.”

The trilogy actually ends with Any Way the Wind Blows. The book picks up right after the end of the previous one. Simon, Baz, Penny, Agatha, and their new, demon-cursed, American Normal “friend” Shepard have returned to the UK after a fairly disastrous trip to America. They were there trying to help Simon get his groove back after more than a year spent lying on the sofa and feeling useless because he doesn’t have a purpose anymore and he’s failing at real life. He’s convinced he was never the Chosen One at all. He’s lost his magic and he’s struggling with the wings and the tail he’s been left with. His relationship with Baz has deteriorated and each is afraid the other is going to leave them.

 Wayward Son is about the stagnation and unhappiness that creep in after conflict. An attempt to “find themselves” leaves the core cast, if anything, more lost than ever. Even Penny—who has always been certain she’s right about everything—is miserable and confused. There are some beautiful parts (most notably when Simon “bad with words” Snow thinks of Baz, “I’d give him all that I am. I’d give up all that I was. I’d open up a vein. I’d tie our hearts together, chamber by chamber”), but it is grim at points—and the ending is one of them.

 The beginning of AWTWB is more of the same: more terrible communication (epitomised by a genuinely wonderful chapter that is just unanswered texts from Baz to Simon), more uncertainty and lack of direction. Simon walks out on his friends, attempting to leave the World of Mages completely. Penny accepts this, believing that she no longer has a right to tell Simon what to do; Baz doesn’t. When Baz finds and confronts Simon, they argue and break up. Baz leaves with the parting shot: “I never thought I’d be the first thing you ever gave up on.”

 Then Simon comes back, about a hundred pages into a six-hundred-page book. He doesn’t want to give up, he wants to try. And everything gets better.

Is this too easy? To some extent, yes. From a narrative perspective, if anything should have brought us to this point, it ought to have been the events of Wayward Son rather than a break-up that lasted less than twenty-four hours. Yet Rowell does a good job of selling this as the shock Simon needed. He’s always been impulsive, always thrived in life-and-death situations where he needed to fight to survive. The only thing that’s changed is that Simon starts to treat his relationship as a thing he’s going to fight for.

As a reader invested in this relationship after two/three novels, I loved the two of them spending time together: working through the problems they’d never talked about, enjoying each other’s company, revisiting Watford School of Magicks, eating biscuits in bed, going to Ikea, having sex for the first time (on page and more explicit that you’d expect from a YA book, but not that explicit), and hunting for rats together in the alley outside Simon’s new flat to quench Baz’s vampiric thirst.

The key message is that communication is always better—they both hate things about themselves that the other person has no issue with and, at last, they start to make that clear to each other. They even joke about it. We also learn that some of the issues they had in Wayward Son were caused by Baz treating Simon gently, because that’s what he himself wanted from a relationship, whereas Simon interpreted this as Baz pitying him. Once Simon is able to articulate this, Baz changes the way he touches Simon, but he refuses to stop being nice to him: “I can touch you less gently, but I won’t love you less kindly.”

In a way, none of this is new, but it’s unusual to spend so much time in an established relationship that isn’t actively breaking down. Things just keep getting better. The scenes back at Watford work particularly well as a foil to the school scenes in Carry On, in which they were at best reluctant allies. Now, Simon’s still confused, he still doesn’t know what to do, but they can talk and laugh together.

Baz turns his face away and unhooks Lady Ruth’s glasses from his ears.

“I’m sorry,” I pant.

He looks confused. The spring on one side is caught in his hair. “For what?”

I shrug. I don’t know. I hug him closer. My arms are crossed in the small of his back. “Breaking your nose. In fourth year.”

He laughs. “Oh. well. You should be sorry about that.”

I lean forward and bite his nose, right at the crooked part.

“Crowley, Snow—don’t break it again!”

I let go of his nose. And look in his normal-sized eyes. “I’m sorry …” I shake my head. “That I didn’t figure it out sooner. I—I would have liked to have had you for a friend here.”

I’ve already said that enjoying the central relationship is key to enjoying this series, but never has that been more true than in AWTWB, in which relatively little happens. A reviewer on Amazon put it very well: “The first two books are adventures with fleeting, beautiful, agonising moments of intimacy. This is a book about intimacy with moments of adventure.”

There is a magical adventure plot and it’s cleverly constructed around the vacuum left by Simon’s withdrawal from the magical world. Apparently, other magicians have been setting themselves up as the prophesied Chosen One. One of the candidates, Smith Smith-Richards, might not only be the real deal, but might also be able to give Simon back his magic. But this plot works differently than the plot in Carry On. In the trilogy’s first book, all the threads of the plot (defeating the Humdrum, finding out who killed Baz’s mother, Simon and Baz resolving their feelings) locked together tightly to get us to the happy ending. In AWTWB, the Chosen One plot predominantly exists as a framework within which Simon and Baz can grow and change and be nice to each other.

There are also two other plot threads in AWTWB, which are each focused on one of the two main female characters of the trilogy. In the first, Penny is trying to uncurse Shepard, which would be easier if she still believed she could fix people’s problems, and if Shepard stopped smiling at everyone and buying sandwiches from Pret. In the second, Agatha learns from newly-introduced character, Niamh, that the magic goats are leaving their old school, Watford. Like the ravens leaving the Tower of London, this is bad news.

Both of these strands are, like Simon and Baz’s story, also centred on romantic relationships. Arguably, they’re also quite similar romantic relationships, even though one couple is heterosexual, and the others are queer men and queer women. Simon and Baz, Penny and Shepard, and Agatha and Niamh all began their relationships as enemies of a sort before they experience an “I didn’t know kissing could feel like this” moment. Penny, Agatha, or both could have been set up as characters who didn’t need true love to complete them, but by promoting them to main characters (rather than the sidekick and the ex-girlfriend), they become caught up in the YA romance genre.

It’s also potentially an issue that, in order to give the new romances time to bloom, the two new couples spend most of the book with, and only with, each other. That means their narratives are almost entirely unconnected to the Simon and Baz A-plot. It’s very Return of the Jedi to split the third instalment of a trilogy into three streams, but it left me missing the earlier books’ group dynamic.

The good news is the new romantic leads are also arguably “strong, appealing, sympathetic and three-dimensional characters.” Niamh doesn’t feel like someone we’ve just met. She informs us that she was three years ahead of our heroes at school, and that their Humdrum-fighting antics messed up her lacrosse games. She doesn’t even really remember who Baz is (“Pale? Crooked nose?”), which Agatha, who has been hanging around with Simon for years, genuinely can’t fathom.

Shepard was one of the best things about Wayward Son and shines again in this novel. He doesn’t have magic himself, but he’s a Fox Mulder-esque magical enthusiastic, who introduces Penny to people and concepts she’s always thought were beneath her as a magician. One of the best scenes in AWTWB sees them visiting a magical creature pub. Penny demands a disguise and Shepard suggests she says she’s a muskrat maiden—a kind of creature that Penny has never even heard of. They trade skins with humans, apparently. When Penny objects to the plan, Shepard responds: “Nice. Muskrat maidens are notoriously thin skinned … It’s because they only steal the human epidermis.”

After reading Wayward Son in 2019, I was sure Shepard had been introduced to encourage our heroes to think about how magicians were wrong to disregard magical creatures and Normals; and to enable Simon to see that he himself was still of value, even if he didn’t have magic anymore. I still think that is the character’s overall narrative effect, but it doesn’t click into a clear lesson and effect change in the World of Mages. Penny’s parents eventually accept Shepard as her partner, but in part because he’s interested in magic. He’s not just a Normal, he’s a special Normal who gets us.

Similarly, Baz allows Simon to watch him drink rat blood, showing even Baz is starting to accept himself, and we meet another vampire who has “gone vegan” (i.e. choosing not to drink from humans) so it’s not as if Baz is the only non-murder vampire. The new Chosen One plot shows that low-powered magicians, including Baz’s stepmum and Penny’s dad, feel like second-class citizens. It’s why they fell for Smith-Richards in the first place.

Nothing changes as a result of these events—not politically, anyway. Penny’s mother may re-evaluate her priorities, and Baz reaches out to his stepmother, realising that despite her lack of magical “worth” she’s been more of a mother to him than the woman he’s been mourning for fifteen years. But it’s all personal change. No one suggests vampirism should be decriminalised, or that it’s wrong to bring back tests that would exclude low-powered magicians from Watford.

I’m very conflicted about all of this—and about the ending of this trilogy in general, which leaves Simon sure of his relationship, yet still unsure of his place in the world, or even how to start making one for himself. Everything’s so unresolved that I’m still half convinced a fourth book will be announced soon, despite the trilogy marketing.

I don’t hate where we leave the characters, but I don’t like it as much as I want to. Part of me wants a neat, satisfying ending: for the good to end happily, the bad unhappily. For the good to understand from the events of the novel that things need to change politically, and to put steps in place to make that change.

I did love the ending of Carry On. The war between Simon and Baz’s families ended with the death of the Mage. Penny’s mum was Head of Watford and might start to bring about reforms. We didn’t know whether Simon would ever find out who his parents were (one of the key dangling threads that was resolved in AWTWB), but in a way that didn’t matter. He knew who his family were—it was Penny and Baz. Simon was in therapy, he was going to university to find out what might interest him, he was living with Penny and in love with Baz. In leaving them all reasonably content and together, looking forward to more adventures together, Rowell ended the novel in what I personally think is the model of the great ensemble endings: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Cabin Pressure, etc.

Any Way the Wind Blows is an ending about endings,” the back-cover copy states. “About catharsis and closure, and how we choose to move on from the traumas and triumphs that try to define us.” Before reading the book, I imagined this meant AWTWB would be about moving on and growing up—a bit like Carry On. The third and final Very Potter Musical does astonishing things with this theme (no, really). Rowell’s point seems to be that real life seldom provides endings. Sometimes you don’t get catharsis or closure, but you still need to move on anyway.

If that’s true, then the fact that the World of Mages still doesn’t really get better isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Individuals can learn and grow, but systems need more than just a magical boy and his friends to truly bring about change. Systems may not get better for a long time and you still have to live in them. Chosen One narratives are usually about fixing the world, but Rowell’s trilogy is about how Simon is a confused, messed-up young man, who should never have had to bear that pressure himself and definitely not because he was destined. He does still help people even after he loses his power. He saves the day in Wayward Son, and again in AWTWB, because ultimately that is who he is, but the people he saves are increasingly people he knows and cares about. “How much of any of this are we responsible for?” he asks Baz as the two of them debate going back to America to deal with the vampires they met in Wayward Son. “I don’t know,” Baz replies. “Some of it.”

That’s not an inspiring political message, but then the Simon Snow trilogy isn’t a call for political action. Over the course of three books we gain a clear idea of who the enemy really is (white men, in a position of power, who tell you they have the answers). But no one in the novels seems to know what we should do about that, except presumably stop voting for them. Instead, everyone is tired and overwhelmed, but trying to be happy where possible. That resonates.

Any Way the Wind Blows is an unusual ending for a fantasy trilogy. Simon’s holding a sword on the cover, but he barely uses it, because that’s not how he solves his problems anymore. It’s a book written during a pandemic during the rise of fascism in America and Brexit in the UK.

It’s a call to take care of yourself, to communicate, to enjoy the mundane. To carry on, carry on. But not as though nothing really matters—as though eating biscuits in bed with someone you love matters, just as much as saving the world.

 

[1] Toasty Stats for all pairings on AO3 as of 2019 shows Harry/Draco at number 5 overall. AO3 skews heavily towards male/male pairings, in comparison to other archives, but hopefully still gives some idea of scale.



Katy lives and works in London. She enjoys theatre, musical theatre, and SFF television filmed long before she was born.
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29 Nov 2021

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that our donor's choice special issue for 2021 is titled—simply—Friendship.
The year before this, the girls at school had called her Little Lila .
Pictures of me that day are kept in the ship’s files, sent back to Earth to be used in my captors’ eventual war crimes tribunals.
Perhaps a new urban system of star navigation is needed
This world, covered in spectral ebullience, was tied together by bows of light
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When does the pursuit of pure thought, pure idealism, pure escapism become detrimental?
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