*Disclaimer: I received an Advanced Reader’s Copy of this book for the purpose of review. No other compensation was received. All opinions expressed are honest and my own.
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Scott Westerfeld is known for delivering high-concept Young Adult books based in creative, compelling worlds. Afterworlds, due for publication Sep 23, 2014, seems to promise more of the same, but after a strong start ultimately sputters to a shallow and uninspiring end.
Afterworlds is the story of two stories, actually – first: 18yo Darcy, who has just sold her debut novel to a NYC publisher, and second: the novel (titled Afterworlds) Darcy wrote. The book alternates between the two plots, and it’s actually quite fascinating at first to see how Afterworlds-the-fiction develops (presumably in re-writes) as Darcy experiences more of life in New York City.
Afterworlds-the-fiction grabbed me from the get-go. Main character Lizzie is caught in a terrorist attack in a New York City airport, where she discovers while playing dead that she can actually transfer to the “flipside,” or divide her spirit from her physical body and interact with the dead. The scene is gritty, disorienting, and had my undivided attention. I was intrigued with the fiction’s basis in Hinduism and the Vedas, the nod to Yamaraj (the god of death), and with Lizzie’s transformation into a teenage psychopomp (or grim reaper, of sorts).
But while Afterworlds had enough grit for a reader to gain traction, Darcy’s story felt like the pilot for a show on The CW or ABC Family. It was too shiny, too charmed.
An 18yo girl decides to type 2,000 words every day for a month, and lo and behold, she writes a novel! (Though it’s not specifically mentioned, this seems to be Westerfeld’s hat-tip to NaNoWriMo.) Then she writes a 3-paragraph email to a publisher in New York, who decides to buy the book, plus its unwritten sequel, and advances her $300,000 to boot.
Immediately after high school graduation, Darcy jets off to New York, where she stays in her agent’s empty luxury apartment for a bit, puts on a fits-to-a-T little black dress, and joins other authors for “YA drinks.” Everyone loves her, she lands her own amazing apartment, she falls in love (which is more of a surprise to her than the reader), and spends her days in a mix of eating her way through New York City, spooning with her lover, and agonizing over rewrites.
She joins her lover and another (enormously famous) author for one week of a book tour, and discovers that with no experience whatsoever, she’s able to hold her own in front of an auditorium of high school students. What is ironic about this scene is the “duel” that emerges between the three authors in answering a question about what matters most in fiction: setting, theme, character, plot, or conflict. Darcy’s answer is conflict, and yet there seems be so blessed little of it in her own life, and indeed, in the story Westerfeld has written about her.
Even when Darcy acts like a particular jerk to her lover, she’s forgiven. When she reveals a major secret to her traditional Indian family, it’s glossed over as nothing. She runs out of money to maintain her devil-may-care lifestyle in New York, but no worries, she’ll figure it out. With no real conflict, no real tension, there’s no real growth and ultimately no real caring for Darcy. I finished her story thinking “So what?”
Which leads me back to Afterworlds-the-fiction. Darcy’s story runs out of steam at least four chapters before the fiction’s does, which made for a torturous conclusion as I skimmed through Darcy’s chapters to see how Afterworlds ends.
I am definitely more satisfied with the fiction, but I’m not sure that’s saying much. It seems consequences are as absent in Lizzie’s world as in Darcy’s, since Lizzie commits a pretty heinous act, and never has to answer for it. As a reader, I was extremely disappointed. There’s a hint that Lizzie’s consequence will be her lover’s dismissal of her, but even he implies that in time, all may be forgiven.
But I have to credit Afterworlds-the-fiction for at least having tension and depth, and there were parts that were downright creepy. I cared about Lizzie, even liked her most of the time. Of the entire book – both stories, combined – she was the most complex, fleshed-out character.
I can’t tell you how disappointed I am at not thoroughly enjoying Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds. I love him as an author, but felt like this was such a missed opportunity. He is brilliant, this book is not. I’d give it 3/5 stars.
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