Simon Pulse/Simon & Schuster
*Advanced Reviewer’s/Reader’s Copy (ARC)
Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she’s made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…
Woven in with this story is Darcy’s novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the ‘Afterworld’ to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead, and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved – and terrifying – stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.
*Warning: Some mild spoilers*
I’ve heard quite bit about this book by the well known young adult author, Scott Westerfeld, and if the $750, 000 national marketing campaign is any indication, “quite a bit” is a huge understatement. Westerfeld has a big presence in the YA community with his most popular series being Uglies, but Afterworlds is my first introduction to the author, and the book left me feeling conflicted and, overall, underwhelmed. There are many things going for this book that could easily have made it a four and maybe even five star read, but the approach that Westerfeld had gone with was a gamble and ultimately didn’t pay off. Before getting into that, let’s look at the book’s strengths.
Westerfeld’s book is a story within a story where it alternates between Darcy, our debut YA author, and Lizzie, Darcy’s protagonist in her novel Afterworlds. Westerfeld’s book does a wonderful job exposing to us the world of publishing, or more specifically the young adult world, and I found it to be the more interesting aspect of the book. We got to see Darcy’s struggle with imposter syndrome as she deals and questions her place as a writer, the processes that occur once a book is sold to a publisher, what happens when a book doesn’t sell well, etc. and, although there were moments of heightened reality, we do learn quite a bit about the publishing world that, as readers, we’re not invited to see. My favourite scene involving a high school auditorium left me smiling from ear to ear and begging for more, and I learned what the difference is between a half title page and a full one. One of the “behind the curtain” topics that Westerfeld delves into is the question of cultural appropriation in storytelling, and that leads into another strength of this book: one of the leads is a woman of colour.
The publishing world has recently been in the midst of a very visible campaign for more diverse books featuring characters of various sexual orientations, races, cultures, etc. Darcy Petal, of Indian descent, is from Philly, and her story features a Hindu death God who’s been altered for the benefit of her story. When a fellow and seasoned author brings up the potential problem of cultural appropriation for the sake of “YA hotness,” Darcy rethinks how she’s handled a character from a culture that she’s not personally intuned with herself. It also brings up the conversation of whether or not it’s still problematic if the author is of that culture. This fabulous conversation at the beginning of the book was a constant throughout. I hope that it does challenge the minds of the readers because it’s a valid and important question. I think Westerfeld handled Darcy and her culture wonderfully without painting her as the cliched other. I’m a huge fan of Imogen and the younger patel Nisha. I enjoyed every moment of Darcy’s chapter and, to be honest, I wanted to stay there. Lizzie’s chapters weren’t as enjoyable and it got to the point where I had to wade through them just to get to the more interesting parts.
I always say that multiple points of view can get tricky because you run the risk of having some point of views (POVs) way more interesting and engaging than the other(s). The first two chapters of the book are the strongest and hook the readers immediately. Darcy’s chapters tend to stay in the realm of good to excellent throughout the book but Lizzie’s starts to dip almost immediately to the point where I couldn’t care less what happened to her or the rest of the characters. I think the weakness lies with Westerfeld’s choice of genre being paranormal rather than a straight thriller. The story (Lizzie’s) starts with a terrorist attack that allows Lizzie to pass through the “Afterworld” due to experiencing a near death. After that, the story feels like it’s a thriller being pushed into a paranormal shaped hole. There is mention of a cult group potentially behind the attack, a serial killer, a FBI agent, and other far more interesting aspects to the story that are often swept aside or used to push the paranormal agenda which felt less exciting and stale. I don’t say this knocking on paranormal as a genre – I love a great a paranormal story – but from a position that the choice of paranormal was the wrong choice. Maybe if Westerfeld had replaced the terrorist attack, the cult, and the FBI agent and just given Lizzie a different type of near death experience, I think it would transition better as a paranormal story.
I’ll also add that the characters in Lizzie’s POV weren’t as interesting or lively as the ones over on Darcy’s side. I would have liked to see more of Lizzie’s family and her best friend to offer a more emotional anchor to the character. I feel like Yamaraj and the rest of the paranormal community could be fleshed out into more three dimensional characters since they fell a bit flat. As the book goes on, Darcy is editing her manuscript so there are changes that are happening throughout as Lizzie’s story goes on. This could play a role in my critiques, but I doubt it since it didn’t really improve in the second half.
Half of this book is fantastic but sadly there’s another story, another half dragging it down.
This book comes out on September 23rd, 2014.