Sunday 20 October 2019

#CBR11 Book 75: "Wayward Son" by Rainbow Rowell

Page count: 416 pages
Audio book length: 8 hrs 57 mins
Rating: 4.5 stars

Spoiler warning! This is the second book in a series, and this review will contain spoilers for the first book, Carry On. If you haven't already read it, you should do yourself a favour and do so.

Simon Snow was the Chosen One, destined to bring an end to the threat to all magic. Of course, it turned out that he himself was in fact the thing that was threatening the magic in the first place, and his mentor/father figure (and actual biological father, although none of the characters in the story ever found out that part, only the readers did), the Mage, died in the process. As did Ebb, one of Simon's only true friends. Saving the world also meant Simon losing all his previously unlimited reserves of magic, so now he's just a normal human, albeit one with big red wings and a devil's tail. Dealing with the aftermath of saving the world is not going well for Simon. He spends most of his days on the couch, drinking cider and not really engaging with his boyfriend Baz or Penelope, his best friend and flatmate. He's not entirely sure why they bother with him anymore, considering how powerless and useless he is right now.

Basilton "Baz" Pitch spent most of his time growing up loving his roommate Simon in secret, hiding the fact that he was a vampire and mentally preparing to probably have to face Simon in some cataclysmic battle. Instead, he and Simon became boyfriends and he helped Simon stop the Mage. Unfortunately, Simon no longer seems to want to talk to Baz, or even be touched by him. He's clearly pulling away and in serious need of help in some way, but Baz really doesn't have the faintest idea how to help.

Penelope Bunce was so relieved when she, Simon and Baz managed to save the world without any major casualties (except poor Ebb, of course, and the Mage, but he was the villain, so he probably deserved to die). She couldn't really face going back to Watford for her final semester, but nevertheless graduated with top marks, and is really enjoying her time at University. It's a terrible shame that Agatha, Simon's ex-girlfriend and Penelope's sort-of friend, abandoned her wand and swore off magic and moved all the way to California, where she now pretty much refuses to answer Penny's calls or texts. Penelope also can't help but observe how miserable both Simon and Baz are, and desperate measures are clearly required to snap everyone out of their funk. She breaks multiple laws of magic to secure them tickets to the USA, and even magically forges a passport for Simon.

Agatha Wellbelove did indeed travel about as far away from Britain and her former life as she was able. Now she's enjoying her time as a college student in San Diego and trying to forget all the times she was kidnapped and/or threatened as a result of being Simon's girlfriend. She wishes Penelope would just take the hint and just leave her alone. Agatha's managing fine without magic, and has human friends now, like Ginger. It's not even like Agatha will be home when Penelope and the others are planning to visit, she's going with Ginger to some exclusive corporate retreat in the desert, along with Ginger's tech mogul boyfriend Josh. There will be yoga, and vegan cupcakes and all manner of chances of 'levelling up'. Agatha is doing just fine, she doesn't need any ties to her old life.

Penelope's plan is that they go visit Agatha, to ensure that she is actually doing as well as she claims she is. They'll start their journey in Chicago, so Penelope can catch up with Micah, her long distance boyfriend of many years. Of course, everything starts off badly (Micah has in fact tried to break up with Penelope for ages, and even has a new girlfriend already) and just keeps getting worse. Our three young wizards (as Penelope says, Simon is still a wizard even if he can't do magic anymore, just like an air plane doesn't stop being a plane just because it's on the ground) have absolutely no idea how magic really works in the USA, they don't really have a lot of money, and they are completely unprepared for just how vast the country is. All three of them are shocked to discover just how long the trip from Chicago to San Diego will be, although Simon is excited about the road trip.

They slay vampires at a Renaissance Faire, they get cornered by mysterious supernatural creatures with big guns in a magical dead spot, they have a rather tense run-in with an actual honest to God-dragon and discover that Penelope may have been right about Agatha, she really IS in trouble. Our intrepid trio also Shepard, a human with an all-consuming curiosity about magic and magical creatures of all kinds. He's not as easy to ditch as they were hoping, and comes to be an invaluable ally to them. Will he be able to get them to Agatha before it's too late, and she's turned into a vampire by corporate tech-vamps?

Carry On was my favourite book of 2015, and remains (with heavy competition) my favourite of Rainbow Rowell's novels. So Wayward Son is by far my most anticipated book release of 2019. Since it came out in September, I have now read it once in e-book, and re-listened to it in audio format (Euan Morton's interpretation of the various characters is now how I hear the voices in my head). When I greedily started devouring it, I had no idea that the book isn't just a long-anticipated sequel (four years is a long time), but in fact a bridging book, the second part in a planned trilogy. The book starts with an epilogue, and ends with a prologue. This made me very hopeful, and only a few days after the book's official release, Rowell announced the title of the third (and probably final book, Any Way the Wind Blows). Re-reading the book, knowing that this story isn't meant to be the end point for Simon, Baz, Penelope, Agatha and now also Shepard means that a lot of the questions and misgivings I had about the pacing and plot of Wayward Son were put to rest.

With Carry On, Rainbow Rowell wrote her own very clever take on the Chosen One story. Of course, we rarely, if ever, find out what happens to the Chosen One, and his allies and sidekicks afterwards. I can't really think of any other author who has explored the aftermath of surviving the big, cataclysmic events at the end of such a story, and what it would do to the characters left standing. So much of this book is exploring PTSD, and depression, uncertainty and fear. Anyone who was hoping for sunshine and kittens and Baz and Simon living happily ever after will have been disappointed.

While it was exciting and romantic and lovely that Simon and Baz got together during Carry On, there is no denying that their history prior to suddenly kissing and holding hands was a very fraught one. They believed themselves to be destined enemies, and even ignoring that, the sort of trauma Simon was put through throughout his childhood had to cause damage, even before he was forced to confront the fact that the only father figure he'd ever known was evil and had in fact murdered several people to get into and maintain power. As Baz observes at one point during Wayward Son, Simon is a warrior, a blunt instrument. He was never allowed to be anything else, trained by the Mage to fight and kill any threat. Simon was never particularly intellectual, but he didn't need to be, because he was so tremendously powerful, with inexhaustible magical reserves.

Simon never needed to really fear injury or death when facing off against terrible creatures, because his magic always allowed him to pull through. Of course, he discovered that he never ran out because he was literally sucking the magic out of everything around himself, and that would obviously have to stop. Simon Snow has completed the task he was chosen to do, now he has no magic anymore, no purpose and absolutely no idea what he's going to do with himself for the rest of his life. Now he feels like a burden, and is constantly reminded of what he's lost, because Baz and Penelope are both such powerful and effortless magicians.

Baz was only spoken of, but didn't appear until a full third into Carry On. He's by far my favourite character (Rainbow Rowell doesn't really hide the fact that he's her favourite too) and steals pretty much every scene he's in once he actually shows up, having escaped a kidnapping.  In Wayward Son, not only do we get him for the whole of the book, he is probably even more of a protagonist than Simon is. Baz is that incredible and forbidden thing, a vampire who can do magic. The mages of Britain hate vampires and hunt them down. In the USA, Baz discovers that not only do the wizards really mainly keep to themselves, in parts of the country, vampires pretty much rule whole cities. Having been bitten and turned as a child, Baz has always had to hide who he is, and feared and loathed the part of himself that needs to drink blood to stay alive. He only ever drinks animal blood, and he always kills the animal, terrified he may accidentally turn the animal otherwise. He comes to discover that he knows very little about what being a vampire actually means, and that in America, the furtive way he's been forced into hiding his true self may not be necessary.

My fellow Cannonballer, Jen K, found Penelope especially insufferable and annoying in this book. I can see where she's coming from, but I disagree. Penelope, even in Carry On, was always a bit self centred and oblivious to the true state of affairs. It takes her the longest time to actually catch on to the fact that Simon and Baz' relationship has changed and she has truly staggering capacities for denial if there is something unpleasant she doesn't want to face up to. She refuses to stop contacting Agatha, despite all hints and signs suggesting that Agatha has no wish to maintain a friendship. She impulsively decides they all need to go to the USA for a change of pace, breaking any number of magical laws to do so (despite the fact that her mother is the current head of the Coven and would be beyond appalled if she discovered what her daughter had done).

Penelope has been used to being the brains to Simon's brawn and thanks to a lot of luck and Simon's magical powers, they clearly got through a lot more scrapes than they should have. In America, she is completely adrift, with nothing working out the way she has planned and society functioning in entirely different ways to what she's used to. While she tries for the longest time to avoid it, Penelope needs to take a good hard look at who she is and take steps to change, because the person she was makes terrible decisions and ignores the well being of others. She needs to stop being selfish and so blindingly sure of her own rightness, and start listening more to those around her.

I very much liked the introduction of Shepard, the "normal" who thanks to kindness, politeness and a healthy curiosity has discovered all manner of magical secrets. Through him, it becomes obvious just how arrogant, prejudiced and unaware of their own privilege the British magicians are. Seeing Simon, Baz and Penelope through his eyes was fun, and he's quite obviously being set up as a new, better love interest for Penelope. She took Micah entirely for granted and has hopefully learned that she needs to be a bit more present in a relationship to actually make it work. There are a lot of loose threads surrounding Shepard, but I have no doubt they will be tied off nicely in book 3.

In Carry On, Midwestern Rowell takes on the UK and boarding schools and does a truly excellent job at writing characters that feel properly British, complete with class differences, snobbery and the like. In Wayward Son, she gets to expand her world building and show how the magical system she has created works in a large, decentralised country like America. Baz' list of things he hates about road tripping through the Midwest is comedy gold, and I really liked the idea of magical dead zones in places too far away from humans for magic to work.

Discovering that of course all the other magic-possessing creatures and beasties don't much like the "speakers", as the magicians are known, because of their arrogance and their belief that their control over and ability to do magic is the only one that really counts. Getting to read about the various different attitudes of vampires, and how sheltered poor Baz has been. Penelope seems shocked that Shepard knows so much about magic and the supernatural, and that there are internet message boards discussing these things. Wizards and magical abilities are topics that should be totally secret, she cannot imagine that normal humans might be fascinated by it and want to learn more.

This book is a lot shorter than Carry On, but also moves at a much quicker pace, since it doesn't need to spend as long setting the stage as the first book. Jen K complains that the ending is rushed, and I agree with her, but I still liked that against staggering odds, mostly disillusioned and deprived of their magic, our intrepid heroes still banded together and did their best to rescue their friend, even knowing they might all die in the attempt. I can't wait to see what the third book holds, and desperately hope that having set her various characters on a path of self discovery and gradual healing, we get a more hopeful tone as the series wraps up. This turned out to be a very different book than I was expecting, but since it turns out that there's more Baz, Simon, Penelope, Agatha and Shepard in my future, I'm happy.

Judging a book by its cover: This book has been released with a huge variety of alternate covers, depending on which country it's coming out in, or what book store is selling it. All of the covers feature amazing artwork by the very talented Kevin Wada, and I absolutely love both Simon and Baz' looks here. My only complaint is that the little car at the bottom doesn't seem to contain Penelope, although I suppose the scene could be from when she was lying down in the back seat of the car, all depressed and gloomy.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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