I have come to expect a lot out of Scott Westerfeld over the years. There was Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Peeps. Looking at this man’s range I had big expectations but I never have expected what I got.
There is only one to describe this book and that word is meta. Possibly one of the most meta books in the teen section and so meta, it begins to hurt your brain when you start to think about it too much.
Afterworlds comes with two stories rolled into one novel, each story in alternate chapters.
Darcy, the lucky little scribble monkey that she is, wrote a book in one month (nanowrimo without the explicitly stating it was nanowrimo). She sends her story off to an agent, who sends it off to the publishers and BAM! She gets a giant advance and a contract to write a second book. Darcy puts university on hold and moves to NYC to focus on her shiney new writing career.
Story 2 is said novel Darcy wrote in a month. A story about Lizzie who gets caught in a terrorist attack and realises that she can walk through the world of the dead. She is a psychopomp, a grim reaper, a shinigami, whatever you want to call it. Her spirit guide is Yamaraj, an exceedingly hot guy who “teaches” her things, even though she is mostly left to learn what to do with her new powers on her own.
There are subtle intersections of themes and symbology, tying the two stories together, but you never find yourself getting the two girls confused. Darcy is full of writerly fears about her book: editing, her characters’ structural integrity, fears about having people read the book, whether or not she is an actual writer. Lizzie is completely absorbed in getting used to her new powers, which come with some perks as well as lot of draw backs.
Lizzie’s story is definitely the type of writing that you have come to expect from Westerfeld. It’s supernatural and intriguing, full of suspense and hard lines to walk. It opens in a scene as shocking as the shower scene in Psycho.
One minute Lizzie is walking through the airport, a victim of some astonishingly funny damn-you-autocorrects, and the next she is about to be gunned down by some machine gun slugging cultists in the middle of the airport. Then in walks dizzyingly hot Yamaraj to save the day and make out with her just after the terrorist attack. The only thing that keeps the moment from being cliche is the fact that this book is clearly genre aware. It was a clear f*** you to supernatural romance.
Yamaraj is somewhat personality-less, in that he shows up, does his mysterious act, and then pops out again after showing her some cool stuff. We get it, he’s like 2000 years old, and he has goals, he wants to protect the ghosts that live under his care but he reads rather flat. I’m hoping that was strategic.
All the other characters though, are not flat. Lizzie is accompanied by Mindy, the murdered ghost of her mother’s childhood best friend. And then there is the villain, Mr. Hamlyn, who practically a ghost serial killer. Mr Hamlyn has special interests. Special interests involving children. No, he’s not terrifying at all.
Afterworlds, in its meta-ey goodness, has tons of references to other works of fiction.
To name a few:
– Lizzie and Darcy of Pride and Predjudice
– Mr. Hamlyn collector of children as the Pied Piper
– Imogyn Grey and Imogyn White like Gandalf the Grey/White
What about Darcy?
In Darcy’s story she takes her giant book advance, moves to NY, becomes friends with a ton of famous authors and falls in love with her author girlfriend. She then proceeds to go on book tours and conventions, write her 2nd novel, and then maybe think about going to university. (This girl has a horseshoe so far up her butt it’s practically a nose ring.)
Darcy is really lucky, but she doesn’t get cocky. In fact, her success has filled her with a lot insecurities that she might not have had if she had clawed her way to the top. Her self-doubts include: Am I really a good writer, was this book just a fluke, and I stealing other people’s work (several times the answer is yes), am I committing cultural infractions, HOW THE HELL IS THIS BOOK SUPPOSED TO END?! and many many more.
It makes her more human, and ultimately likeable.
Her partner in crime/girlfriend is Imogyn Grey, who has published one novel that isn’t doing so well. She has a secret past that she is trying to escape from and goes by a pen name. Darcy spends a lot of time trying to pry into Imogyn’s past.
Darcy’s story takes your little writer’s heart on a ride into your deepest fantasies. If you’ve ever done nanowrimo and with dream in your heart, you’re going to love Darcy’s side because you get a little glimpse of what is on the other side of being signed (and live vicariously through her like I did).
And you learn things. I for one did not know that writers had to do their own copy-editing. I just assumed you handed it to the publishers after you finish the structural edits and it came out the other side all polished and grammatically correct. Apparently that’s only in a perfect world.
But this book has its weird moments. If you want to talk meta, Darcy signs Afterworlds at BEA, where a book called Afterworlds was also given out at BEA and signed by Scott Westerfeld.
I kinda just stopped thinking of Lizzie’s story as Darcy’s book and Darcy as just this living entity author who I just piggybacked with for a year.
Afterworlds reminded me of an alternate version of Fangirl, in a really obscure way. Fangirl was about an author of fanfiction, and we were given snippets of Simon Snow throughout the novel to the point where we wanted to read Simon Snow like it was a real book (editor’s note: which it is now, thank you for Carry On Rainbow Rowell). It’s like Westerfeld got frustrated reading Fangirl and decided to give us two books side by side.
I felt like it would be very easy to separate the two stories into entirely separate books. If he published the two side-by-side there were details that I felt like could have been expanded on. We could have seen more Jaime, gotten to know the other authors more, actually gotten to know Yamaraj, and maybe even explored the Afterworld more. But I did like how the two stories worked off one another. I felt like you got to see into Darcy’s soul by what she was writing and how her life affected her book.
So Afterworlds wasn’t perfect and was a little vague at points but over all I really liked how it was done. It is well put together and so different from anything else out there. It had a steady pace and really interesting ideas. But, if there was ever a perfect time to read this book, it’s right before nanowrimo. It’s a writer’s fantasy and will make you mad to write short stories, novels, poetry, grocery lists – pretty much anything with words on a page.