Review of AFTERWORLDS by SCOTT WESTERFELD
I love Westerfeld’s UGLIES series, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I couldn’t wait to read it. I’ll confess from the start that AFTERWORLDS didn’t live up to my, perhaps unrealistically, high expectations, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless.
AFTERWORLDS tells two stories, that of a young writer and that of the story she’s writing: about a girl who sees the dead after surviving a terrorist attack. Darcy’s publishing success has left her breathless and out of her element. She wrote her first book in a month, for NaNoWriMo. Then she submitted that, with barely any edits, and the first agent snapped it up and quickly secured her a huge contract with a major publisher. Now fresh from high school, Darcy’s setting aside her parents’ expectations of college to instead move to New York and pursue writing full-time. Meanwhile, we also read Darcy’s story, about a teenager Lizzie who pretends to be dead when terrorists start shooting in an airport. In fact, she pretends so well that she comes too close to death and after that she can see the dead. Darcy’s book follows Lizzie’s journey learning about her new powers, ghosts, and death. Like Darcy, Lizzie’s life suddenly looks completely different. She had simple, standard college plans until fate shook up her life past recognition.
This book features the kind of skilled writing that you don’t even notice, because every word and phrase feels so natural and right. When I look closer I see a lot of passive voice and adverbs. However, everything seems so fitting for Darcy and Lizzie’s perspectives that I never noticed unless I specifically looked.
The plot arch feels so wide that I feared I might reach a frustrating cliffhanger at the end, with hardly anything actually happening in this installment. The pace moves extremely slowly at first, but does pick up. I didn’t find myself investing much until over halfway through, when the pace quickened, but once I did I felt entirely absorbed. I’m also pleased to say the ending is not a frustrating cliffhanger.
I loved and hated Darcy’s plotline. As a writer myself, I connected with all the mundane authentic details about writing and editing and publishing. However, as a writer who pushes myself extremely hard to make enough time for writing and submitting and constantly improving my work, it irritated me reading about an idolized version of publishing where Darcy barely tried at all. She wrote one book where many writers write several before publication. She only wrote said book in a month where it takes some years to finalize one. She hardly edited the book at all while most writers go through a few to countless drafts. Actually I’m not even touching on the idealism of the publishing side yet, only the writing side. I understand that the story needed Darcy’s success to happen suddenly and keep moving along, but the glasses seem too rosy.
However, I think the book’s biggest weakness is that there are two distinct stories that never intersect. I wondered throughout the novel how Darcy and Lizzie would connect. Would they actually meet? Would we start seeing Darcy’s edits reflected in Lizzie’s life? No, Darcy is a writer and Lizzie her character. As best as I can tell, when we read Lizzie’s story we read the book Darcy wrote. No more to it than that. It sounds silly, because Lizzie is a character, but I wanted her to feel equally real to Darcy. Instead Darcy is a character while Lizzie is a character within a character, another degree removed.
The subtle writing and author commiseration made this book entirely worthwhile for me, but I do suspect it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.