Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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Reviewed by Bookgazing

Scott Westerfeld is undeniably an imaginative author, even in the context of the SFF world where authors produce fun and wild new concepts every other day. His Uglies series depicts a world where radical surgery is an established rite of passage for sixteen year olds. His Leviathan trilogy sees the British Air Force flying around in genetically modified whales. In his new novel, Afterworlds, Westerfeld attempts to keep that entertaining, fantastical side to his work while also expanding into new territory.

Afterworlds contains two stories told in alternating chapters. One set of chapters follows debut author, Darcy Patel, as she moves to New York and begins to edit her first novel, also titled Afterworlds. The second set of chapters presents the final version Darcy’s novel which tells the story of Lizzie, a young girl whose life changes forever while she is waiting for a plane. Westerfeld uses this structure, which is slightly more complex than a single linear narrative line, to juggle Darcy’s realistic contemporary storyline alongside the text of her paranormal novel; a novel “written” by a fictional character he has created. With such a structure and conceit Afterworlds could be very meta, or it could just get messy.

Afterworlds’ setup seems to provide the perfect substance for stylistic games. It’s easy to imagine a novel about a fictional character writing a novel, particularly one that tells a story within a story, and allows the reader’s access to the editing process could become a novel about reality and creation with the introduction of a few structural tricks. However, Afterworlds never strays into the experimental, and the novel’s ideas about authorship are kept to practical questions about cultural appropriation or whether a writer can borrow ideas inspired by their girlfriend.

While it’s a little disappointing that Afterworlds fails to go in a trickier, ambiguous direction, the novel is still capable of asking big questions about literature. In particular, Darcy’s experience as a debut author allows the novel to discuss one of the big issues authors can face when re-writing; confronting cultural problems they’ve written into their work. Darcy has based her male romantic lead on Yama, a real life Hindu god. Darcy is Asian-American and her parents practise Hinduism but she isn’t active in the faith, and she mostly included Yamaraj because she noticed a lack of Indian romantic heroes. As the novel progresses, Darcy becomes unsure whether she has the right to use a real god as a sexy love interest in her novel. She discusses this with her friend Sagan who rolls out his pet theory, ‘the Angelina Jolie paradox’:

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

“Because that would mess up the movie,” Carla said.

“Exactly. So when you cast Angelina Jolie in a film, you’re creating an alternate universe in which the actress Angelina Jolie does not exist.“

Sagan explains that because Lizzie is unaware Yamaraj is a real life god Darcy must have created a world where Hinduism doesn’t exist; otherwise someone would bring it up eventually. Darcy is upset that she has erased Hinduism, and further distressed to realise that if she were to remove Yamaraj during re-writes she would erase her Indian male lead. And so the reader sees that even when authors have good intentions, even when they’re writing with knowledge of a culture, they can still mess up.

I suspect that writing a novel where a chromatic woman erases Hinduism may represent one of Westerfeld’s own encounters with the Angelina Jolie paradox. Still, I was glad that Afterworlds included characters which diversify its fictional world. Darcy is Asian-American, as are her family. Yamaraj is Indian. And Darcy falls in love with a woman, Imogen a fellow debut author, and crucially they get a happy ending. There is some racial and sexual diversity in YA, and Westerfeld is far from the first author to include Asian characters or LGBTQ characters, but the amount of diversity in YA remains low year on year (read more here) and that makes Darcy, Isabel and Yama incredibly important characters.

I’ve spent most of this review talking about Darcy. When a novel regularly switches between two storylines one often appeals to a reader more than the other. Lizzie’s story is certainly compelling – in the first chapter of her story, Lizzie is caught up in a terrorist attack at an airport. This opening is tightly written and expresses the terror and frustration of everyone involved. Lizzie escapes by following an emergency operator’s advice to play dead. Playing convincingly ends with her crossing into the after world where she meets Yamaraj. Lizzie returns to the world of the living with new powers including the ability to see ghosts. She finds the ghost of her mother’s murdered childhood friend living in a closet and that’s when the weirdness really kicks off.

All very interesting, and yet I was still often more eager to read about Darcy’s life even though hers is a contemporary, more commonplace, story. Darcy has been swept off to New York and awarded a huge advance for her debut novel but, at heart, she’s regular teenager living an everyday writing life. Darcy’s experiences with frustrating edits, easily spending through her advance and mixing with other authors are commonly written about by authors on their blogs, and I wasn’t drawn into her story because she offered unattainable insider information. There’s just a natural quality to Darcy – a mix of insecurity, humour and determination – which makes her the most fascinating character in the novel.

Of course, part of the appeal of Darcy’s story is her romance with Imogen. The scenes which first establish their attraction have a light, electric touch to them that leaves a tingle in the air. I also enjoyed reading about a female romantic interest who is a person not a prop. Imogen has her own quirks, desires, boundaries and journey of authorship, and her lively, separate existence from Darcy enlivens the girl’s relationship and Afterworlds.

It seems that Westerfeld has trumped the fascination of his own imaginative paranormal flights by including two ordinary, wonderful young women in Afterworlds and having them fall in love with each other. Who knew writing could be that simple?

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Scott Westerfeld, Afterworlds (Simon and Schuster: London, 2014) 9781471122569, 599., paperback.

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