ARC Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


title:  Afterworlds

author:  Scott Westerfeld

pages: 608

format: Paperback

isbn/asin: 978-1481422345

buy it: Amazon  Goodreads  B&N

rating: 4/5 [in the genre] or 7/10 [all books I’ve ever read].

recommended for:  People who love experimental literature.  Fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.  

will i read this author again?:  Yes.  Duh.  
will i continue the series?:  N/A 
My Ratings Explained

Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. 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. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved - and terrifying - stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.

the basics
I never thought I'd be writing a review on what is essentially a postmodern, metafictional young adult book.  I'm going to let that sink in.  Seriously, the English Major in me had chills the whole time.  Afterworlds is a stark deviation from Westerfeld's previous sci-fi epics, but in content, not quality.  The hefty book contains two full stories: that of Darcy Patel, lucky writer debutante, and that of Lizzie, Darcy's main character.  A book within a book.  Take your time sifting through all the meta; it blew my mind in ever more powerful ways as I began to recognize all the layers of reference as well as Westerfeld's subtle (loving) satire of both his own work and his industry.  As a wannabe writer, Darcy's story titillated and terrified me.  What differed here is that I wasn't enthralled in Darcy's novel (also Afterworlds) in the same way that I would if it were a standalone.  I don't even know if I'd have picked up Darcy's novel.  But set within Darcy's world, it became something larger and more meaningful than its parts alone.  While I don't think Afterworlds will ever replace Uglies in my heart, and there were certainly missteps, I admire Westerfeld for taking a literary risk and nailing it.  This has proved a divisive book already in the review world; I'm firmly team Afterworlds.  Will it prove as fascinating for non-writers?  I don't know, but I hope avid readers will appreciate its merits. 

plot . 4/5
I'm not even sure how to construct this.  I'll start with Darcy.  We begin as she's jet setting to New York.  She's received her offer and advance; she's deferring college so she can immerse herself in the writing world, revise Afterworlds, and make a start on Untitled Patel.  Her story is full of awkward meetings, neophyte missteps, and budding romance.  Some call it instalove; I think Darcy and her romantic interest spend quite a lot of time fumbling through friendship before they couple up, and their subsequent flings and fights feel authentic.  Throughout, Darcy is navigating accelerated adulthood in the clumsiest way.  She's burning money, forgetting deadlines, procrastinating, and eating too much ramen.  I can imagine myself into her shoes as an 18-year-old suddenly given power and prestige--and her sometimes poignant, sometimes hysterical bumbling makes for an entertaining read.  

Then there's Lizzie.  We meet her in the midst of a terrorist attack in the airport, when she's sucked out of her body into one of many Afterworlds, thin spaces between life and death.  Lizzie learns from the sexy Indian death spirit Yamaraj that she too is a psychopomp, a herder of spirits who can walk both worlds.  Back home, she's suddenly besties with her mother's murdered childhood friend, now a skittish eleven-year-old ghost called Mindy.  She's drawn into an insta-romance (but I'd contend, not love) with her dashing savior.  She becomes drawn into Mindy's murder and bent on revenge--with help from some unsavory characters that unwittingly leads to some underworldly drama.  It's an exciting plot, but probably not one I'd love if it weren't fenced by Darcy's narrative.  Which, to me, is exactly the point.  Afterworlds (the fictional fiction) has all the missteps of a debut novel and so it makes sense.  It also serves to bolster Darcy's narrative--which we'll get to.  What I can is that I loved the interplay between the narratives, but my lack of fervor for Lizzie's narrative was the main reason I didn't give this book a five.           

concept . 5/5
I'm such a fan of metafiction.  I learned to love it in short story classes in college and of course through my hero, Kurt Vonnegut, who often inserted himself, as a character, into his novels.  Westerfeld takes it to its logical conclusion: a story in a story, with each commenting on the other.  I was a little put off by the dual story narrative at first.  Why do I need this, I thought.  Why am I reading two parallel stories that seem to have nothing to do with each other, except that one was written by the character in the other?  I think I was expecting a fantasy tale in which writer met character.  As I read on, my mind was completely reversed.  Having Darcy's story paired with her story was a fabulous way for Westerfeld to comment on the process of writing, to peer into Darcy's mind in a different way, to show concretely how art mirrors life.  I'll talk more in a second, but Westerfeld nailed the concept with several metalevels.  There was the real Afterworlds, the book in my hands about Darcy.  Inside was fictional Afterworlds.  Then of course, every time Darcy or another character discussed fake-Afterworlds, they were really talking about Westerfeld-as-writer, the overarching meta-writer.  Interested yet?  

These multiple levels allowed Westerfeld to comment baldly and with gentle satire of the process of writing and being a writer, the publishing industry, and the way art and life interact.  His characters laughed about the clicheness of paranormal romance (Darcy's novel was a paranormal).  They talked about publishing contracts and the process of writing.  Darcy's friend Imogen bemoaned the slow success of her debut, a paranormal with an "edgy" lesbian character--neatly mirroring Imogen as, voila, a lesbian character.  Darcy pulled the hook of Lizzie's mom's murdered best friend from her own mom's murdered best friend.  There were fears of cultural appropriation--Darcy's, and also on a meta-level, Westerfeld's in writing an Indian MC.  Some have called Westerfeld narcissistic for slyly praising his own work every time a character praises Darcy's work, but I read it as absolutely tongue-in-cheek and self aware.  He knows what game he's playing and he's asking the reader to play along.  

characters . 4/5
As with the plot, I liked the characters in Darcy's world more than in Lizzie's.  Darcy is a creative, well-meaning emergent adult with flexible boundaries, stars in her eyes, and poor decision making.  She wastes money.  She shirks deadlines.  She's overcome by insecurity and the sudden need to grow up unexpectedly fast.  She messes up.  A lot.  And I loved her for it, because she feels so authentically like a teenager thrust into a dream and suddenly faced with the reality part.  I will say, her cultural heritage is interesting.  She's Indian but isn't very steeped in her culture.  However, I don't find it as problematic as other readers did.  1. She acts like a lot of my own Indian friends who are laxly religious and basically only celebrate Indian holidays.  While this is not an excuse for character whitening, it felt realistic to me.  2.  Cultural appropriation is a huge topic in the narrative itself.  I'm fairly sure that Westerfeld was aware of his choices and using this as another level of commentary.  

Her sister, Nisha, was my favorite.  She's a mathematical hard-talking high schooler who calls her sister "Patel," charges Darcy for saying "my agent," and sets strict budgets for her sister's advance.  She's funny, precocious, and delightful.  Darcy's high school friends were underutilized, but Imogen was not.  She becomes a force in Darcy's story and her own personality shines through.  She's insecurity mingled with confidence; she's private and a little broken and trying to remake herself.  I bought it.  Mixed in are delightful minor characters like the snarky Standerson (I'd love to know his inspiration) and Darcy's sweet and slightly clueless mother.  

Lizzie's world was just, less.  Lizzie herself feels a little thin.  Yama is a typical brooding fantasy love interest.  Jamie is, as Darcy's editor puts it, "lives with father, has car."  Mindy was one of the best, a mix of bubbly childishness and too-dark fears.  Mr. H (why can't I remember his name!?) was deliciously creepy.  But all in all, they were flat.  And I was okay with that.  Because they were Darcy's creations, amateur author creations, and they read like every amateur paranormal character (*cough* still better than Bella *cough*) in a newfound bestseller.  It worked.     

style . 4/5
Westerfeld's style was different from his sci-fi, less sharp and magical but good in a different way.  It was insanely witty--and if you tell me too witty for an eighteen-year-old, I'll remind you to give eighteen-year-olds more credit.  The dialogue is absolutely spot on.  I could feel myself in those conversations.  I've had some of those conversations.  It was funny, clever, and pretty darn tight.  It was also third person for Darcy and first for Lizzy, which brings us to the contrast between Westerfeld's writing and "Darcy's" writing.  He manages to make Darcy's novel read like it was written by a different person.  It still has its flavor, but it has Darcy's too.  It's not quite as tight.  It plays to paranormal conventions.  It's also full of breath-holding descriptions and clever turns of phrase.  It manages to be good without being overly sophisticated--I mean, it was written by an eighteen-year-old.  Sort of.  

mechanics . 5/5
So how did this double narrative work, you ask?  In alternating chapters, we were given Darcy's story and Darcy's novel.  The two pieces played off of each other splendidly.  Darcy's real life (haha) bled into her fiction in sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious ways, changing as she changed.  Conversations that she had earlier in the book leaked into her writing; I always smiled when I caught a reference.  And her novel always felt artificial--in a good way.  I wasn't invested in Afterworlds (the fictional one) as its own story so much as I was invested in it as Darcy's story.  While she struggled to write a good ending, I read on, realizing that at this point in time (fictional time) there was no ending.  The story could go any way Darcy decided, in the theoretical timeline of the narrative  It's a concept that worked on so many meta-levels that it hurt my brain, and really made me think--which I love in a book.  There were also cheeky extra-meta hints tying false Afterworlds (at both levels) to the real world.  Darcy's Afterworlds was set to debut on September 23rd.  Sound familiar?  

take home message
A mindboggling metafictional tale, both a book and a book-within-book.  Darcy's story and her novel are both interesting on their own; together, they create a funny, cutting commentary on writing, reading, and the process of creation.  

Note: I received this copy in exchange for a review.  The price of the book and its origin in no way affected my stated opinions.

No comments:

Post a Comment