Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell Review & Discussion

In which two Rainbow Rowell fans discuss Wayward Son, the much-anticipated sequel to queer wizard romance Carry On ...

This Wayward Son discussion includes MAJOR spoilers for both Carry On and Wayward Son. 

Wayward Son is our current Den of Geek Book Club pick.

Wayward Son, the sequel to Rainbow Rowell’s queer wizard romance Carry On, hit shelves earlier this month. The book picks up roughly a year following the ending of Carry On, which saw Chosen One Simon Snow defeat the Insidious Humdrum and The Mage alongside best friend Penelope and vampire boyfriend Baz. It asks the worthy question: What happens after The Chosen One fulfills his prophecy? 

Answer: Simon Snow is depressed, having not developed the coping skills to thrive in a post-Watford, post-Prophecy world. This prompts Penny into strong-arming Simon and Baz into a cross-country road trip adventure across America. What begins as Cheesecake Factory visits and Ren Faire detours escalates into another fight for Simon and his friends, as the gang is inadvertently pulled into a vampire conspiracy that already has Simon’s ex Agatha in its clutches.

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With a third book in the series, Any Way the Wind Blows, set to conclude the trilogy, Den of Geek Books Editor Kayti Burt and Den of Geek Contributor Natalie Zutter take the time to check in with the beloved series. How does Wayward Son expand on the cultural conversation begun in Carry On, and what do we hope for from the trilogy’s final installment?

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

The First Question

Hot take! Generally, how did you feel about Wayward Son?

Kayti: I feel the need to preface this answer with some context: I was very hyped for this book. Carry On is one of my favorite books, and Rainbow Rowell is one of my favorite authors. To say this was one of the pop culture artifacts I was most looking forward to in 2019 would not be an understatement. Perhaps this kind of hype is untenable, but I am not in the habit of trying to talk myself out of positive emotions (anymore.. I hope), even for the worthy cause of not later being disappointed in part because of them.

That being said, I was disappointed. If Carry On was a nutritious and oh-so-delicious meal, then Wayward Son was a snack. There were elements of the narrative that I really loved and I think it had an amazing, ambitious premise—to explore what it can feel like after you’ve finished The Thing You’ve Always Been Working Towards (this is a particularly good allegory for graduating into the “real world,” a subject I don’t think is explored enough, honestly in our pop culture) but the book never quite fulfilled on its promise. I ended it with a feeling of Not Enoughness. Even though so much happened, plot-wise, it didn’t feel like the characters developed, either individually or collectively, in many noticeable ways.

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Natalie: In retrospect, maybe we should have expected this, since the jacket copy does describe the book as “a second helping of sour cherry scones with an absolutely decadent amount of butter”? But that’s the thing, it didn’t feel decadent. That qualifier would probably apply to a super escapist story, one where Simon and Baz have worked out an easy relationship banter, and Penny is off following some Hermione-esque plot of becoming their equivalent to the Minister of Magic, and everything’s coming up magicians. Instead, everyone handled their relationships to one another awkwardly, and there were misunderstandings and missteps, and everyone made incremental character progress but not the transformative leaps I had hoped for.

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Which—not necessarily bad! But definitely not the expectation I had set up with all the buzz around the book, and Baz’s floral suit, and the overall Supernatural vibe of the sequel. So, sorry to say, but I was also a bit disappointed during the reading experience.

The Narrative Nitty-Gritty

Expanding the ensemble: What did you think about the new characters (e.g. Shepard as POV character, Lamb) introduced in Wayward Son?

Natalie: Shepard might be my new favorite! His insistence on telling the truth and being forthright about his intentions gave him surprising cachet for a Normal, elevating him from just being the Xander of the group; and his curse is a crucial reminder of the consequences of barreling into magickal situations. I’m so glad the trio are dragging him with them to England; I want to know more about his curse, see if it’s stronger or weaker over continental lines, etcetera.

Lamb I felt like I could never get a handle on. Was his vibe supposed to be some Lestat-esque hottie, or a Downton Abbey dreamboat with a darker side? Also, True Blood kind of cemented for me what a vampire king might look and act like, so when that detail got added it just further muddied the character for me. That said, I really liked what he represented to Baz—this notion of someone who came over from the old country and has had such a different branching lifetime(s) of experience.

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Kayti: OMG, same on both fronts. I loved getting a new POV character in Shepard. As a Normal American reading this series, he worked particularly well as an audience surrogate character, which is surprising considering he was obviously not in the first book. I do wish he had come in a little earlier as a POV character, even though I am not sure what that would have looked like. In Carry On, Baz comes in surprisingly late as a POV character, but we hear so much about him before we properly meet him that it feels like he is there throughout the book. This narrative strategy wouldn’t have worked with Shepard, but I would have been OK with having him as a POV character, even before his storyline met up with Team Snow.

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As for Lamb… one of the loose threads from Carry On I was most looking forward to seeing explored in Wayward Son was Baz’s vampirism: how he feels about it, what it could mean for his future, and how it affects his relationships. Wayward Son did not address these questions to my satisfaction—I think we could have gotten more of Baz’s internal thoughts and feelings on these subjects, even if we don’t see him externalizing them to the people in his life—but I think we got the closest with Baz’s conversations with Lamb. There’s still so much we don’t understand about vampirism, and that is because there is so much Baz still doesn’t understand about vampirism. I was surprised that Baz wasn’t more interested in getting information from Lamb.

Natalie: Now that you mention it, both Shepard and Lamb could have entered the story sooner, which might have helped make the narrative feel less back-heavy. The Penelope/Micah section at the start of their trip dragged for me, because their breakup seemed to be broadcast so clearly, long before Penny caught on. It might have been more interesting if Shepard had been someone in Micah’s orbit and have either interacted with the group or been tailing them (with a mysterious, withholding-information POV) before he actually saves their lives.

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I don’t know if I was necessarily missing Baz’s internal thoughts about his vampirism; for some reason, I keep thinking fondly about the whole sequence at the Cheesecake Factory and how he has to run off and get an illicit snack after being confronted with that gigantic menu. Then again, Baz’s vampirism is lower on my list of unanswered questions.

Kayti: I lbrought up The Cheescake Factory in casual conversation with Normals yesterday just so I could mention this book.

Setting: How do you think America worked as a setting in Wayward Son?

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Kayti: I’m always trying to puzzle out how reading the Harry Potter series as an American is different from reading Harry Potter as a British person: is there another layer of escapism for Americans? As a child, I read many of the real-world British things—such as certain foods—as just as foreign and, perhaps, magical as the actual magical things in the world. There is that element of that in Carry On—not only as an American anglophile, albeit one who has now been to England many times and therefore sees it as a real place in way that I didn’t as a child reading Harry Potter—but also in Rainbow Rowell’s writing as an American who, perhaps, also infuses a degree of not totally unproblematic anglophilia in her writing that is like catnip for me.

In other words, there is a level of escapism reading a magical story set in not-America that I don’t get in the same way reading a magical story set in contemporary America. I have too many intense feelings associated with the places and politics here. That being said, I was looking forward to seeing what Rainbow Rowell had to say about contemporary America, as I imagined she, as an American writing about her home country, would have a more nuanced, informed depiction of it, and I am hungry for those explanations of what we are living through: who we are as a country and culture. I didn’t get that.

I did love that Rowell touched on how magic works differently in American. In explaining how the magickal system works in the Carry On world (because I love it, and think it is so clever), I have told so many friends the detail of how Baz is less skilled as a magician in American because so many of his spells are too British. I liked learning about the different kinds of magickal creatures who reside in America, and what their relationship to Mages is, and the reflections about how the wide, open spaces in America would affect magicians’ ability to do magic.

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Natalie: The Renaissance Faire was the shit… though I was surprised that it seemed so alien to these Brits, as I would have assumed they would have a much higher likelihood of running into reenactments of medieval life on that side of the pond. A quick google later, and it turns out that Ren Faires are a very post-World War II American pastime—who knew! So that was a keen choice of Rowell’s, to present a subculture that would feel incredibly foreign to these magicians even though it’s mundane for the Normals.

For all that I felt like the Penny/Micah scenes wasted valuable time, forcing our trio to road trip across the heartland (instead of starting out on the coast, which would have been much more convenient) felt very American. Earlier this year, I spent a month in Nebraska City, NE on a writing residency (with brief visits to Omaha and Lincoln), so those portions felt much more familiar than they would have if I hadn’t temporarily lived there.

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Kayti, I share your love for the quirks and rules of American magic, from the dead zones to—my favorite aspect of this series’ magic system—the efficacy of using American language and phrases in spells.

Kayti: Thank you for bringing up the Ren Faire, Natalie, and for giving that American context for it. I did not know about its history and now need to read more about it.

Natalie: Always here for Ren Faire discourse.

Kayti: Sadly, I have not yet been to a Ren Faire in real life (it’s on my loose bucket list!), but that did not keep me from loving this part of the book, or from understanding (having been to other delightfully performative spaces like this one, including Harry Potter World and, you know, Comic Con) what it looks, feels, and even smells like. There’s something incredibly powerful about going to a space in which everyone, including adults, has agreed to pretend, to play to some degree. In general, the Ren Faire scene felt like the point in the book in which the plot jumpstarted. The narrative sped up and felt kinetic and full of potential in a way it hadn’t before.

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As for the other parts of the American road trip narrative, it struck me in reading your comments that I have not been to almost all of the places that they visit in Wayward Son, which is interesting given my earlier rant about the brand of escapism I enjoyed as a child Harry Potter fan who had never been to England. (Reading Rowell’s books have taught me a lot about Nebraska, which I would love to visit. I recently read her graphic novel Pumpkinheads, which is set at a Nebraskan pumpkin patch, and it made me realize how, as a native New Englander, I erroneously ascribed certain Traditional Fall Practices solely to New England.)

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Natalie: To be fair, I think most Americans (or at least coastal ones, like you and California-bred me) are raised to regard fall as very much belonging to the East Coast what with the leaves and the apple picking and such. So I’ll have to check out Pumpkinheads to disabuse myself of that notion as well!

You’re so right about the plot jumpstarting at the faire, because it was a site of so much concentrated pretend and delight in play. Maybe our quartet will find that they need to locate a similar space in England in the next book?!

Supporting characters: How did Penelope and Agatha grow (or not) as characters?

Natalie: I’m not sure if either grew on her own within her own arc; with Penny, I was especially waiting for her to be shown the error of her ways in looking down on Normals, as it seemed like the book was building to that. Then again, that kind of deep-seated self-reliance (which occasionally manifests as know-it-all arrogance) wouldn’t necessarily go away from just one adventure; so I guess it’s more realistic for her to need to experience more of the world beyond Watford before she fully grasps that while magicians are special, they’re not the be-all, end-all. To that end, one of my favorite moments in the book was when Penny and Agatha realized they could command magic without speaking and by drawing on one another. I’m excited to see how this brings them closer together—and likely on a different magickal level than Baz or Simon can grasp—in the third book.

Kayti: Same. I loved the big fight scene that saw Penny and Agatha holding hands, walking out of the fire like some kind of dude witchhunter’s worst fear. I didn’t think it was particularly earned, character-wise, as we didn’t really get to see these two talk things out. The book began with Penny trying to insert herself into Agatha’s California life, against Agatha’s express wishes. Penny disrespects so many of the boundaries Agatha has communicated to her, and, even though Agatha obviously ends up needing Penny and co., it’s not really addressed.

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I liked Penny’s storyline in Wayward Son, even if I wish we had gotten more of it. I liked that we got to see more of her relationship with Baz, and that her “deep-seated self-reliance” (which is a great way of putting it) is challenged. I think she’s the character who gets the most development here; Micah’s words seem to get through to her and, by the end of the book, she is relying on people a bit more. On the Agatha front, I was disappointed to see Agatha fall back into a world of magic/rigid external structure after she chose a different life for herself at the end of Carry On.

Natalie: I’d say that aside from Simon, Agatha is surprisingly the character with the darkest and most nuanced outlook on the Chosen One narrative—especially since she spent her formative years believing she was the reward for Simon saving the world. Yet I wanted to see more of that anger/frustration from Agatha, who instead seemed rather apathetic (though she got in a few good snarky comebacks) about her limited prospects in California. I wanted her to lay into Penny for ignoring her boundaries!

Looking Forward to Book Three

Do you think Simon will get his magic back in the third book? Do you want him to?

Natalie: Simon seemed to do fine without being able to command magic in this book, thanks to the wings and tail and his general MO of acting like a bat out of hell in battle. I would be curious to see him develop his relationship to magic in what I assume will be the conclusion of this trilogy: having gone from being the manifestation of magic to having to rely on his friends for every little thing, hopefully there’s a way he can learn to exist parallel to it.

Kayti: Yeah, I like that. In some ways, the NowNext crew’s efforts to transplant magic into a non-magickal creature seem to foreshadow a potential choice for Simon: would he choose to get his magic back if he had the option? I’d like to see him develop an identity and broader skillset outside of magic. His inability to properly take care of himself in Wayward Son is not a result of his lack of magic, but rather his mental illness, which I think is a reality Rowell does a good job emphasizing, even if Simon himself can’t see it.

Natalie: Good point. I think that at times I failed to recognize that as a mental illness issue and instead regarded Simon entirely through the lens of magic—i.e., much the way his friends do.

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What do you think has happened at Watford???

Kayti: I don’t know! Why didn’t I let you answer this question first?!

Natalie: I might have chosen to answer these questions in a certain order for this very reason…

Kayti: Very Slytherin of you. 

Natalie: I keep wanting to be Ravenclaw, and then the Slytherin just takes over in moments like these…

Kayti: I am the opposite! I am a Ravenclaw who wants to be a Slytherin. 

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Anyway, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that Penny, Simon, and Baz will face some consequences for their careless actions in Wayward Son, though that doesn’t seem to be what the emergency at Watford is alluding to. I wonder if it might have something to do with the vampire community, as they played such an important role in Wayward Son and are obviously tied to Baz, which would force him and Simon to face some realities they have thus far been able to avoid. Whatever it is, I am happy to be heading back to England.

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Natalie: I definitely think it’s some crisis that’s mostly been running parallel to the events of Wayward Son, though I wouldn’t be surprised if their actions in middle America (and the aforementioned outing via Ren Faire battle) had some impact.

Considering that the trio were all at least a year out of their time at Watford at the start of the book, it would be really interesting if the crisis at Watford is something about which they’re completely out of the loop—if going back to a place where they lived for years is nearly as foreign as stepping on American soil.

How did you feel about that ending?

Natalie: I read this entire book expecting it to be concluding a duology, so even when we got to the ostensible cliffhanger of an ending I initially thought maybe it was meant to be open-ended—that Simon and Baz would or wouldn’t resolve their individual issues, that there would always be an emergency to draw their attention away from fixing their relationship. That would have felt a bit too unsatisfying for me. Now that we know there’s a third book in the works, I’m more onboard with ending on a “to be continued…”

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Kayti: As I got closer to the ending, I think I began to realize that this would not be the end of the series, but I still expected more from this ending: more of an emotional confrontation, of some kind, even if it ended in Simon and Baz breaking up. Simon’s intention to break up with Baz stated in the very beginning of the book felt a bit like a Chekhov’s gun that never went off.

Natalie: You’re right! The fact that they didn’t address anything about their relationship nagged at me—like, even if they’re as bad at being together as they each seem to think, it seemed truly surprising that after nearly dying a half-dozen times over they decided to stay in this weird cautious detente.

What do you want to see explored in the next book?

Kayti: I was expecting the question of Simon’s parentage to play more of a role in Wayward Son—if not in Agatha inadvertently giving Team Snow the information about Lucy that would probably allow Penny or Baz to put the pieces together, then in Simon wondering more about it himself. I’m still not clear how much he knows about The Mage’s machinations. Does he realize that the Mage was his biological father?

I’d also like to learn more about Baz’s family. We get hints of him in Carry On, most especially his Aunt Fiona, who is a force to be reckoned with in the fandom world. How has Baz’s relationship with Simon affecting his relationship with his family, if it has? Is he close with his siblings?

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Natalie: I… completely forgot that Simon doesn’t know everything about the Mage’s plan, so yes I would like to see this resolution as well.

I’d like to see each of the characters struggle with fitting into a post-Watford world in adulthood: Agatha with some righteous anger, Penny examining her magickal privileges, and Simon and Baz comparing their relative support systems in the form of family.

I’d also like to see the magickal world change. Wayward Son proved that there are some cracks in how the magicians harnessed magic and built their identity around it; but it seems like in some ways they need to get with the times. Like, now that Simon is no longer the Chosen One, how does that affect an entire magickal world that was half-expecting to get wiped out at any time?

Kayti: Yes to Agatha’s righteous anger and Penny’s examination of her magickal privilege!

The Final Question

How do you think Wayward Son compares to Carry On?

Natalie: Carry On was so clearly in conversation with Harry Potter and Chosen One narratives—and subverted those story beats so brilliantly, from how spells are constructed to the Mage’s self-fulfilling prophecy—that it feels like a complete book.

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Wayward Son felt like it didn’t know what kind of story it was: part culture-clash tour of magickal creatures of the U.S., part interrogation of its own established magic systems. And maybe that was by design! The characters are figuring out who they are now that they’ve broken the standard Chosen One narrative, so it stands to reason that the sequel would similarly be looking for itself. But it felt very much like a middle book; I will probably enjoy it more on a reread someday once I have the hindsight of knowing how the story ends.

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Kayti: Yeah, I am interested to see how I feel about this book after I read the third one in the trilogy, but I am also a big believer in all respective works of a larger series (whether it is in book, TV, or movie form) having to stand on their own, which I am not sure that Wayward Son does. It’s possible that Wayward Son was never going to be as revelatory a reading experience as Carry On, and the ways in which it used some of the best qualities of fanfiction culture to challenge, expand, and contextualize some of the problematic and/or unexplored aspects of the Harry Potter series, in particular when it comes to trauma.

That being said, I think Rowell’s ambitions with this one—to explore depression and what comes after The Chosen One wins—is just as brilliant an idea as what she was working with in Carry On, but one that wasn’t given the time or space to be adequately explored.

Natalie: Really well put. I think we were all expecting more drawing upon fanfiction culture (something that I will note that Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth succeeds in doing as a follow-up to Gideon the Ninth) when instead this is an entirely different animal. If anything, I would love to see Any Way the Wind Blows build on Wayward Son’s conversation about mental health and moving on, so that the third book is closer to the second than the first.

Wayward Son is now available for purchase via Amazon, Macmillan, or your local independent bookstore.

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Natalie Zutter is a playwright and pop culture critic who will talk about fanfiction until you spell her silent, and is very much due for a Fangirl reread. Read more of her work here.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.