Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

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Category: Teens
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Two patchy novels forced together may not sound like the biggest sin, but when they come from such an esteemed author this is a major let down.
Buy? No Borrow? No
Pages: 608 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Childrens Books
ISBN: 9781471122569

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From a snappy piece of advice, such things can grow. Lizzie is at the airport waiting for the last flight out of the day, when terrorists strike. The 911 operator tells her to play dead, and she does – except she goes one stage further. She practically wills herself to be dead, and even encounters a hunky god of the dead in the realm she enters. Back to our existence safely, she finds she has a lifelong link to what lies beyond, and discovers a ghost that has been living in her home all this time, with a dark reason for sticking around. Sound a great book? Well don't look on the shelves under W for it, for this was written by Darcy Patel, an American teenager of Indian extraction, who was inspired by the discovery of a death connected to her mother to thump out her YA debut within a month. This book – the Westerfeld – is both stories; the tale of Darcy reneging on college plans and moving into a budget-busting apartment in New York to polish, rewrite and publish her work, while thinking about the sequel she's been paid an advance for, AND the very book she's given the world.

I'm sure that sounds an appealing idea – if you're fed up of your books having just one novel in, take the two that you get here. If you get tired of the supernatural teen romance, turn to the wish-fulfilment of the teenage girl thrust into the world of publishing parties, the ability to live two or three years on one whopping pay cheque, and so on. And I'll go further and state that I've done both books a disservice. The fantasy is not just a romance between Lizzie and Yamaraj, the Hindu deity kicking around and protecting souls, whether ancient dead or newly crossed over. There is a kissy-kissy side to the plot, but it is much richer than that – the very mythology of it all for a start is much more complex than a quick summary would allow; there is the dark investigative side to things; and a strong sense of threat to Lizzie. Similarly the 'real world' is not just on one note – there is a darkness here too, with Darcy certainly not having everything her way, despite a well-wrought new relationship for her. So – again, this sounds great, right? We have the amalgamation of two very different stories, the chance to see how two distinctly different novels can be combined – and this is Scott Westerfeld after all, for crying out loud. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, unfortunately, practically everything. In alternating chapters between the stories – Darcy's story, and, er, Darcy's story – we think there will be some real point, but there is none. That amalgamation, that combining? – just doesn't happen. And this is a major flaw. We'd had a couple of chapters each when I first noticed how really detrimental this handling was. Not only is there no way we can sustain the sense of threat and suspense the fantasy should provide when we're interrupted by reading about Darcy, but we quickly turn to think of clever ways the two stories will be resolved in unison. I was sure on page 62 that I'd worked out a brilliant way for the two to come together, but it has to be said that no such thing happens. Here's Westerfeld, a favourite of mine – someone who can make me read 1500-page teen fantasy cycles with no interest to reviewing them, purely for pleasure, someone with well over a dozen books to his name. And here's me thinking up something clever, when Westerfeld wastes 600 pages and provides nothing of the sort. (I won't be completely self-indulgent, I'll say what I think the answer should be not here but lower down the page.)

I did find flashes of worth in the fantasy – it's clearly had some thought put to it, by Westerfeld/Darcy, although to repeat it's just broken into pieces by the other novel alongside it and can't be enjoyed as it should. Reading about Darcy we learn that what we read is her finished book, and not the first draft the publishers enthused over so much. 'She' writes well – I liked the mythology, although even this book does admit it's flawed and self-contradictory at times, as much as some of the quieter, domestic scenes. Darcy as an Indian/American conveys a family building bridges across home-making pasta with squid ink and conveys it very well. But I still don't know what Westerfeld was doing with Darcy's story. It again has flashes of insight into the YA industry, and lets us see he is writing from his own experience at times, but the piece has a horrid flavour of parody. Everyone craves 'Sparkle Pony' books, and these sound like the most horrid creations ever. Westerfeld may well be finely placed to convey what he thinks about publishing for teens, but he may also be biting the hand that feeds.

And throughout he never provides one solid reason why these two novels are in the same pair of covers. They don't reflect on each, beyond the fact that the whole tension from one is demolished by the existence of the other, so that other instead has to pretend to worry about creating the conclusion of the first. If they couldn't be presented separately they should at least have some brilliant reason for being paralleled like this, and they don't. They don't even conclude in a brilliant fashion so much as peter out, and the last sections made me fear the introduction of a sequel like nothing else I've ever read. I was even given cause to quibble over a style quirk of both halves – since when did a child use their friend's mother's name to their friend's face? Surely they don't, and use the simple words 'your mum' instead? I was thinking about a lot of things during the reading of this book – principally that I would eventually find the point. I hate to say there was very little. Yes, this may never have been done before – a book so detailed about the writing of another, but some things are left undone for a reason.

I must still thank the publishers for my review copy.

Oh, and to my 'solution'. Well, I stretch things a lot when I say I thought it was brilliant, but it was a lot more than I got. Surely the only way for things to resolve is with a predictable twist – that while we think Darcy is in our real world and writing about Lizzie, it's the other way round. Lizzie is the real human, and having had all the experiences with Yamaraj and the dead people she encounters, the only way she feels she can reveal the truth to the world is with the disguise of a book about someone writing up her story as a novel. Yamaraj must have met a few authors to fill her in with research.

Noggin by John Corey Whaley shows a very different way for a teen to come back to life. To remember how Westerfeld coped with creating dark worlds, turn back to Secret Hour - which wasn't even his best work.

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