Aimless, boring, quiet--I guess that does kind of describe some roadtrips I've been on in my life. But that probably shouldn't be used as a roadmap for a novel, especially the sequel to a book I enjoyed immensely. Carry On had so much life, so much movement and energy. There was a brightness in every chapter, and the connections between the characters that really sustained me. I couldn't put that book down.
All the things I loved about Carry On have been abandoned in Wayward Son, a bleak, confusing mess of familiar-in-name-only characters and a shoddy plot thrown together to make some semblance of a second act in what will now be a trilogy. I was optimistic but skeptical when I heard that there would be a sequel to Carry On, mainly because I felt like Rowell had done a pretty good job wrapping up the overarching story and character threads. Sure, there were places that the characters could go, but I was content enough imagining them. And never in a hundred years would I have put these characters on a roadtrip through Middle America. So when I heard that that was the premise, I thought: wow, this is so out of the box! It's gotta be good.
But simply stated: this book as a whole does not work. Even on the surface, Rowell never fully commits to it being a roadtrip novel, rushing characters from state line to state line, breezing over landscapes and details that really could have made this book sing. Such a key theme of roadtrip stories is the ability to place the reader in the parts of a region, and often link those landscapes back to the emotional and mental states of the characters traversing them. Rowell attempts this to some extent with Simon, who, in the book's opening, is dealing with depression/PTSD and feelings of inadequacy after losing his magic. Over the course of the roadtrip, he starts to feel much less confined and able to stretch his (literal) wings in the vast expanse of the American Midwest. But it never really sticks, or even feels intentional. In a way, Rowell seems out of her depth trying to tell this kind of story. There are certain things she does well consistently in her YA arsenal, but the level of nuance and craftsmanship required to pull off this kind of novel... well, I'm not convinced she's got the chops. So instead, we get a cast of miserable and miserably dull characters who all seem like husks of who they used to be, on a miserable roadtrip that apparently no one wants to go on? Wow, sounds super solid.
So of course the tone of this novel is extremely subdued. Wry, even. I sat in on an interview with Rowell recently, and she mentioned how much she found this novel to be funnier than anything she's ever done. But the novel is truly lifeless, joyless, and somehow both over- and underwritten, so I have no idea if I'm reading the same novel she thinks she wrote. Pointing out differences between American and English sandwiches isn't all that amusing, and freely mocking American culture from the perspective of British folks... it gets tiring after a while.
It was shocking to see how Rowell characterized her main trio in this novel. Since when has Penny rushed headlong into things without a single shred of a plan? She's been to the United States; how did she not research how magic works across the Atlantic? Since when has Penny been this ethically corrupt and selfish to steal from others without so much as a second thought? For that matter, where is the ethical backbone of any of these characters? Penny counterfeiting money, stealing cars. Simon stealing someone's dog so Baz can feed. Baz killing someone's pet to satisfy his cravings? Who are these people?! They're not the characters I fell in love with. And some of their decisions were appalling, and at no point given the weight they should have been given. Rowell seems to excuse and condone their behavior by the flippant, one-liner sentences without follow-up of incredibly selfish behavior. I understand that war and trauma can change people, but nothing about these characters actually felt familiar at all. They were like entirely different characters.
And let's not ignore the massive elephant in the room: Simon and Baz's relationship, or lack thereof. What a complete letdown. The slow burn of Carry On was so good, so sweet, so satisfying... and then it's just ripped from the reader's hands and we're back to square one with them. All because they refuse to communicate with each other. They're literally within arm's reach of each other during most of the book, and the entire year between novels, but they never speak to each other about anything: why things have felt so off. How to fix these issues. Even neutral topics. They don't really seem to share anything in common now. At this point I actually question Baz's loyalty to Simon, because the only time Baz ever really feels affection for Simon is when they're fighting for each other. And when they're not, they might as well be enemies again. That's not sustainable, though. Or healthy. So basically, the takeaway I got from this book is that the two of them are entirely incompatible in a relationship, borderline toxic. This is the definition of a failed relationship. I'm not convinced either of them are willing or even able to show up for each other at this point, and it was torture to read. This holding pattern they're in is only exacerbating issues between them, keeping them from any kind of healing. It's bad news. And I'm supposed to be rooting for them? It pains me to say I think they'd be better off breaking up.
Don't get me started on the completely out of left field, pseudo love triangle with Baz and Lamb, King of the Vampires. Yeesh, just another way to remind readers that we're no longer looking at the Simon and Baz from Carry On. We as readers know that this fake-out love triangle is a non-issue because Baz claims to still love only Simon (again I'm not entirely sure why), but Simon is of course in fits over seeing his boyfriend with another man. His jealousy is annoying and frustrating, especially because he doesn't have the emotional bandwidth to communicate anything about why he feels this way. Instead, he just gets angry at Baz for carrying out their agreed upon plan--just not to his exact liking. It screams insecurity, which is fine and normal for teenagers, but knowing that all of this could be resolved by just... TALKING to each other is maddening. Using lack of communication as a device is so lazy, and I'm absolutely tired of it. And there really comes a point at which you can't keep excusing character behavior under the banner of trauma. They need to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. And Simon (and largely, everyone in this book) seems intent to do the exact opposite of that. How exhausting.
I think a large part of the failure that is Simon and Baz's relationship is Rowell's apparent need to draw out the "slow burn" romance element as long as humanly possible. So even though the readers got what they wanted by the end of the first book, she's essentially acting as if none of that ever happened because she wants to recreate that longing and sensuality of the first book. But you can't really scratch that and reverse it when your characters are already dating. Rowell comes up smelling like a one trick pony, and the writing itself feels needlessly convoluted and frustrating. I think she seriously missed the mark here. Consider: she could have been exploring a healthy but flawed relationship between two young men who deeply care about each other and want to show up for each other, but are stumbling around in the dark and dealing with serious emotional aftermath. I wanted to see effort expended, and sacrifice. Not... nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Finally, the ending of this novel is completely unsatisfactory, and I'm shocked the publishers agreed that that was a good stopping point. I've never read a more boldfaced cliffhanger from a "completed" novel, leaving us questioning the state of Simon and Baz's relationship and the state of Watford back home. Shame on the editors for that. This isn't a comic that we're going to see a follow-up for next month. We have to wait years for the next installment, and it ends on something much more suitable for a chapter break, not a novel break. It feels like yet another betrayal to the readers. Couldn't Rowell have given us something? An actual, real conversation between Simon and Baz? That could have very easily cleared up a lot of my frustrations with this novel. But no, that would be too convenient. Gotta string us along that much longer.
I didn't hate the whole novel, however! There were some bright spots. I found the stop at the Hoover Dam with the river spirit to be quite magical, and well written. I really wish there were more scenes like it, because it embodied more of the previous book in all its whimsy and mystery. I also did like some of the initial scenes in Las Vegas, but for a city so rife with color and pizzazz and weirdness, Rowell could've really placed us in this strange vampire haven. Instead, it felt mostly glossed over. She focused on strange details and ignored the huge spectacle that is Las Vegas itself. You'd think that being in the heads of three kids who have never seen Las Vegas, they'd want to take in and describe every detail.
Some of the worldbuilding (and further details on vampires) was interesting, though somewhat sparse. I was hoping for more lore to fill up the empty space of the novel, but there was some neat stuff, so I'll give credit where credit is due.
The new character of Shepard was a much needed addition to the sulky trio's roadtrip, though he did not need to be a viewpoint character. Generally, I think his character missed the mark a bit, though I see where Rowell was trying to go with him, and he was marginally interesting. I know Rowell needed to keep his age down because she's writing YA, but he read like he was in his mid-thirties. And the information he's dropped about himself seems contradictory and confusing. Like how he's apparently into nerdy tabletop games, but for all intents and purposes he's a complete loner who spends most of his time traveling and meeting magickal beings. So who is he playing D&D with if he's out seducing dryads and dragons all the time? When was he a storm chaser? When did he have all the time (and money) to travel around the country and earn the trust of so many magickal creatures in such a short period of time? It just felt off. He ended up sounding like an amalgamation of "cool but nerdy" traits Rowell selected, and none of them added up to an organic character. I'm guessing he'll become a love interest for Penelope now that she has demanded that he go to England to try and get rid of his demonic curse, but we'll see. I'm dubious, but still interested to see how he'll develop.
Agatha actually ended up being a fairly interesting character, though I really do wish she would've had more of a role in her own rescue earlier on. One of my complaints with Carry On was that Agatha was more like a prop for Simon to save than a real character, though occasionally there were moments that endeared me to her. I was actually glad to get more moments from her point of view, though I was hoping for a little bit more from her overall. She really does trend toward just being a bit helpless, and I couldn't see hat she had grown much from the previous book, or during this one, which was frustrating. She just seemed... static. Despite that, I did like her more this time around, so that's a plus.
And, well... that's about all I have for positives. It was a rough one for me, and I know it's not the popular opinion but it is my honest one, so we'll leave it at that. I will be reading the third installment when it comes in, mainly because I like to see things through to a conclusion, but I'm curious to see if Wayward Son is simply a symptom of the second-book-of-the-trilogy issue--setup with very little actually happening--and if Rowell can stick the landing. At this point, I'm not optimistic.