Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

21 August, 2014 Reviews 14 comments

I received this book for free from Book Expo America in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Afterworlds by Scott WesterfeldAfterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
Series: Standalone
Published by Simon Pulse on 23rd September 2014
Pages: 599
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Paranormal Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, Young Adult
Format: ARC
Source: Book Expo America
Amazon Good BooksBook Depository

Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends, she wonders whether she's made the right decision, until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings.

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy's novel: a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the 'Afterworld' to survive a terrorist attack. It is a place between the living and the dead, and as Lizzie drifts between our world and the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved - and terrifying - stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns that her new gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.

“Everyone was talking about their own work as well, and about the superpowers of their agents, the bloody-mindedness of copy editors, and the perfidies of marketing departments. Darcy was swimming in a sea of publication, and all she wanted to do was drown.”

I’ve long felt that writing is – and always has been – my strength. It’s something that I have always enjoyed doing, and the feedback that it has received over the years has me believing that it’s a skill that I’m at least somewhat competent at. Yet I’ve never had much of an urge to try my hand at storytelling. Essays and reviews are all very well and good, but the thought of attempting a novel’s worth of fiction has never much appealed to me. Perhaps I simply don’t have the patience or work ethic. Perhaps I’m afraid of inadvertently telling a really, really crummy story. Whatever the reason, the concept of writing a book just hasn’t been an interest of mine.

Afterworlds, however, makes me want to write a book.

Given that half of its narrative is dedicated to concepts of publication and storytelling, I’d like to think that this alone proves that Westerfeld’s latest is a successful bit of fiction. There’s a distinct love of the written word in this novel that reminds me very much of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart, and it’s ambrosia for readers who love that sort of thing. When the focus remains with Darcy and her struggles in New York as she learns the ins and outs of the publishing world, Afterworlds is largely enjoyable as a result.

But Darcy’s tale is only half the story, told via alternating chapters. The others are devoted to a story within the story: the titular Afterworlds that Darcy has written and is in the process of releasing as the novel progresses. Having completed its first draft during NaNoWriMo prior to the book’s start, this other tale is presented (presumably) in its revised, final form, and is essentially your typical YA paranormal romance – this one about a young woman named Darcy who becomes a sort of grim reaper after a near-death experience. There are ghosts. There is a good-looking, immortal love interest. There is a mystery involving a serial killer. And none of it is particularly interesting.

“Even in that awful moment, I could see that he was beautiful. He shone somehow, as if sunlight were breaking through the mist, just for him. He was one of those boys with a perfect jaw, who looks stunning when he’s clean shaven, but just that little bit more handsome with the barest shadow of stubble.”

Afterworlds essentially gives you two books for the price of one. But only one is really worth reading.

Darcy’s, though it suffers from the occasional bout of unnecessary drama (derived primarily from the protagonist acting needlessly irrational for the sake of conflict), is a contemporary coming-of-age piece that tackles the intricacies of writing, reading and growing up, and mostly comes across as a love-letter to stories and the people who both craft and consume them. Minutia such as the usefulness of a pseudonym and the necessity of research for realism are scrutinized in great deal, and such attention is a great indulgence for those who are taken with such concerns (and, as a reader, you must be to some degree). One portion is notable in particular for its consideration of the way that Darcy’s work uses the “Angelina Jolie Paradox” – the idea that, in a contemporary story’s world, certain elements of our culture must be erased in order to explain the lack of understanding of a mythos on the characters’ part.

It’s interesting, it’s easy to relate to, and – perhaps most importantly – it centers on a queer woman of color. I give Westerfeld a lot of credit for entirely avoiding the all-too-typical white, heterosexual protagonist so ingrained into societal storytelling as a whole and providing a degree of representation for the LGBTQIA community, as well as for recognizing that it is in fact possible to write non-white characters who are more than secondary cast members or literary wallpaper. Darcy struggles with edits, potential sequels and writing the perfect ending for her characters, but also faces the difficulties inherent to first loves, new cities and budgetary concerns. All of it is done rather realistically and with a definite sense of balance and consideration, and it’s simple to enjoy as a result.

Lizzie’s adventures are another matter. It’s an interesting situation, certainly, as her chapters function both as a story in its own right and as a piece of fiction within another. Consequently, they’re a bit hard to analyze. Much of it – spirits, insta-love, a central character with clear elements of the Mary Sue trope about her – is predictable and dull, but that may be the point. Lizzie’s tale is a prototypical YA novel because, in Darcy’s world, it’s supposed to be. It’s meant to represent the first published work of a girl who is only just out of high school, who’s writing was picked up by a publisher because of its mainstream appeal. Lizzie is white, and the mythology employed is potentially problematic in its usage of Hindi scripture, but these ideas are addressed by Darcy’s chapters, with Westerfeld touching on concepts of cultural appropriation, the lack of diversity in YA literature, and the blurred ethics involved with borrowing or “being inspired by” others’ works and ideas – again, to his credit. But justification and explanation for clichés does not entirely excuse them.

Though the shortcomings of Lizzie’s narrative makes sense in context, it does not change the fact that one still has to read several hundred pages – an entire, second book’s worth – devoted to them.

“‘As a whitefella who plunders indigenous mythos, I’ve had my share of squabble, all of it richly deserved. But at least I pass on my wisdom by hassling you young people.'”

Consequently, Afterworlds is very much a mixed basket of ideas, storylines and tropes. As far as gimmicks go, the use of alternating chapters is smart because it keeps one reading. The breakup prevents either of the stories from becoming tedious or dragging on too long (which is a definite concern, as both have their slower moments). If one isn’t particularly interesting to you, motivation comes in the fact that the next chapter will jump to something very different, and a cliffhanger ending to one ensures that you’ll need to continue reading to reach its continuation.

Aside from the “story-within-a-story” idea, however, the format can prove jarring due to the lack of connection between the two narratives. You would think that a dual storytelling technique would employ frequent parallels between the two protagonists and their difficulties for the sake of cohesion, but there is rarely such a consistency. Mostly, it feels as though Westerfeld simply wrote two books of different genres, split them apart, and then tangled them together for the sake of being different. Yes, we are reading Darcy’s story as she writes it. But this single relation is too flimsy to sustain a workable association over six hundred pages, especially since the novel as a whole is so evenly split between the two. Devoting an equal amount of time to dual ideas does not necessarily create a functional interplay if there isn’t some obvious thread joining them. Rather, it only makes the overall flow of the story more disjointed. The fact that one is written in the third person while the other is in first does not help, and only serves to make the divide between the two parts all the more obvious.


To Conclude… 

Its unique storytelling approach and narrative structure is interesting, but Afterworlds does not do enough with its eccentricities to make it truly memorable. There is a good story here, but it’s largely buried beneath another, less enjoyable one.

A worthwhile bit of fiction as a whole, but one that demands a level of commitment and patience that may not be worth the effort for some. I imagine that response to it will be greatly divided, as one’s mileage is undoubtedly going to vary when so many genres and ideas are combined into a single product. It’s a bit of an experiment, after all. And like all experiments, it’s messy and not entirely successful. That does not mean that it is not worth the effort, however. If anything, it makes the end result more interesting to consider.

Paul Beimers

Paul Beimers

Reviewer at Cuddlebuggery
A reviewer, blogger and trope enthusiast who isn't nearly as consistent with his reading as he should be.

14 Responses to “Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld”

    • Paul Beimers

      You may very well get more out of it than I did, Erin. There is such an eclectic mix of ideas here that I doubt that any one person is going to respond to them all in the same way as another. Who knows? You may really enjoy it.

    • Paul Beimers

      Thank you for the kind words, Kat. They mean a great deal, coming from you. I only hope that the impending school year will allow me some time left to read and post regularly!

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