book review

Book Review: Afterworlds

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Darcy is an 18 year-old first time novelist who has just been given a two book deal and a ridiculous advance ($300,000) based around a first draft she wrote in one month. Lizzie is her protagonist, a girl who, after a near-death encounter, meets a hot ghost boy named Yama, like the Hindu god of death.

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Darcy’s chapters are white, while Lizzie’s are black, which means you essentially get two novels in one.

Afterworlds could only have been written by one of the best. In my opinion, Westerfeld is the best in YA. His familiarity with the craft allowed him to write an experimental novel that, frankly, if it were shelved in the Adult section of bookstores, would be likened to the prose experiments of Italo Calvino.

This book is a celebration of books, but not in the way any other book is. Westerfeld has done something new. Rather than writing up a memoir on the joys of writing, or setting a story in a bookshop, or doing any of the other things books-that-celebrate-books do, Westerfeld shows us how books are made. By having his character make one. 

On Amazon reviews, some people have complained that Lizzie – Darcy’s protagonist – has a story that doesn’t “feel quite right.” I hate to sound snobbish, but these reviewers don’t get the point.

Darcy’s novel – the one with Lizzie in it – is not a finished book. It’s meant to be the in-progress draft of a first time novelist. Which is amazing, because Westerfeld is not a first time novelist, he’s a seasoned one, but he’s showing us a story that, despite having its glimpses of literary value, isn’t finished. It isn’t edited. We can still care about some of the half-formed characters. For example, Jamie is Lizzie’s best friend, and even though we get to see some great scenes with her, Darcy receives comments from her editor in one scene, and her editor’s description of Jamie’s character reads:

Jamie: 17, has car, lives with father

Then:

‘“‘Has car’? That’s it?” she cried out. No hair color, no brothers or sisters? No particular race? […] As Afterworlds had unfolded, Jamie had grown into someone quietly amazing. […]

And she was nothing but a cardboard silhouette.

“Fuck!” Darcy yelled.’

This comes moments after realizing that, in the whole novel, she never assigned her protagonist a hair color.

So to all those people complaining about the vague “wrongness” they felt while reading Lizzie’s half: Duh. There are too many chapters of exposition, the pacing is off at certain points, one character randomly gets a name in the final few chapters after previously being called “the old man” over and over again, and our protagonist never gets a hair color. And all of this is on top of a whole other can of worms that Westerfeld was brave enough to open, which is cultural appropriation.

Darcy made Lizzie’s love interest the Hindu god of death. Darcy and her friends discuss this (no spoilers):

Darcy: “Did you find any of that offensive, Sagan? Like, as a Hindu?”

Sagan: “It seemed weird at first, but then I figured that it wasn’t a problem, because there’s no Hinduism in your universe.”

Darcy: “What?”

Sagan: “Well, you know when Lizzie googles all those death gods? At first I didn’t get why she never ran into the concept of Yama.”

Darcy: “Because that would be weird. […] He’s not a god in my world, he’s a person.”

Sagan: “Exactly. So I figured that the Angelina Jolie Paradox applies.”

Darcy: “The what now?”

Sagan: “You know when you’re watching a movie starring Angelina Jolie? And the character she’s playing looks just like Angelina Jolie, right?”

Darcy: “Um, yes. Because that’s who she is.”

Sagan: “No, she’s a regular person in that world, not a movie star. But the other characters never mention that she looks exactly like Angelina Jolie. No one ever comes up to her on the street and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’ […] [W]hen you cast Angelina Jolie in a film, you’re creating an alternate universe in which Angelina Jolie does not exist. Because otherwise people would be noticing the resemblance all the time. This is what I call the Angelina Jolie Paradox.”

Darcy: “What does this have to do with my book?”

Sagan: “Well, given that Lizzie’s been researching death gods, and yet somehow never realizes that her boyfriend is an actual death god for, like, eight hundred million Hindus, I assume your book takes place in a universe in which Hinduism does not exist.”

[…]

Carla: “You just erased your own religion.”

Westerfeld’s making a political point. He’s also threatening to send Lizzie’s story – a story that has, so far, completely captured the reader – into a nonsensical mess. He strips away the illusion that the rules of Lizzie’s world make sense, taking away the authoritative tone of every novel ever. First he goes here’s your world, believe in it and love it. Then he goes just kidding, those were only words I was flashing in front of you.

Because that’s what novels are. That’s how they’re made. Kristin Cashore, fantasy YA author, has this great speech about how, in one of her novels, she needed to occupy her characters for several months, so she conjured up a nearly-impassable mountain in the middle of her world and had them travel through it. Then, in her next novel, one character needed to tell news to another character very quickly. Problem: In the last book she’d put a nearly-impassable mountain between them.

Of course, when you read both books, the mountain is a literal part of the landscape; her creative solutions and months of banging her head against the wall (I imagine) go unseen. Book-making is a rocky and arduous endeavor that usually only readers who write can truly understand. But Westerfeld thought of a layered way to help non-readers understand (and it’s a whole, whole lot of fun for writers to read, too).

This book takes you through the steps of becoming a writer and moving to New York. Darcy’s bits were total, fun fantasy for any aspiring writer. But she is definitely locked into our real world. There are a couple of doing-the-laundry and buying-mops scenes in her life, while, on Lizzie’s end, you get astral projection and a ghost-love story that’s actually a simulated first draft of a novel.

Weird? Yes.

Astounding? Absolutely.

Westerfeld’s imagination and problem-solving skills must have been stretched further than ever before. The results are mind-bending.

Rating: ★★★★★

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