Book review: Afterworlds, by Scott Westerfeld

Westerfeld AfterworldsWesterfeld, Scott. Afterworlds. Simon Pulse, 2014. 599 p. $19.99. ISBN 9781481422345 Ages 14-up. P7Q9

It’s happened twice. I picked up a new young adult novel to read on an airplane and the book begins with an airport disaster—the first time with Malinda Lo’s book, Inheritance, and now with Scott Westerfeld’s book, Afterworlds.

Afterworlds is actually two books, told in alternating chapters. One book—entitled Afterworlds— is the paranormal fantasy of a Lizzie, young woman who survives a terrorist attack at an airport by dying for a time and being led back into life by an incarnation of the Hindu god of death. Lizzie’s book details her acceptance and use of the power of being a psychopomp—one who escorts the dead safely from life into death. Lizzie’s book is a quest, a love story, a hero story, and a fantasy horror adventure.

The second book is the story of the 18-year-old author of the first book, who wrote the novel in one month, found an agent, and signed with a publisher for a $300,000 advance. Though the second book sounds like realistic fiction, beginning in a very real Philadelphia and moving to a very real New York, it is the very stuff of writers’ fantasies. Darcy Patel, an aspiring author just graduating from high school, decides to postpone college, moves away from her protective Indian American family, and lives in New York City while she polishes her first novel and writes the sequel.   Lizzie’s adventures may be traced directly from Darcy’s discussions with experienced authors and the work she does to maintain integrity within the story. Darcy’s approach to life as a novelist seems well planned, but Darcy herself seems very immature. She rents a too-expensive apartment and has no furniture for it, attends cocktail parties with publishers and established authors, and falls in love with one of the young women in the group. Darcy’s book explores the world of publishing, her own imposter syndrome, young love, coming out as a lesbian, and the process of becoming an adult.

Westerfeld has done something very clever. One of the themes in the ongoing conversation about diversity considers whether an author from outside a culture can ever do justice in writing about a character within a given culture. Westerfeld not only created characters outside his culture, but he has one of them discuss the problems of writing culturally authentic works by authors from outside that culture.

Separately, the two stories are not quite enough to stand alone. Together, the themes threaded through the books reflect and strengthen each half, creating a cohesive whole. Fans of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies and Leviathan series may not appreciate the pace of the stories, but aspiring young adult authors will find the discussions and descriptions of the publishing world well worth pursuing. Highly recommended for high school and public library collections. January 2015 review (edited May 2015) by Jane Cothron.

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