As someone somewhen almost certainly said, the story is the thing… and it is, isn’t it? Most readers read in order to know what happens next—to these characters or that narrative—rather than out of interest in much of anything outwith a given fiction; assuredly not the particular process of authors, though after Afterworlds, I’ve begun to wonder whether we mightn’t be missing a trick.
A twofold story about storytelling, Scott Westerfeld’s insightful new novel alternates between a pair of coming of age tales. In one, we meet Lizzie: a typical teenager, to begin with, who’s too busy texting to notice the start of a terrorist attack.
I’d never heard an automatic weapon in real life before. It was somehow too loud for my ears to register, not so much a sound as the air ripping around me, a shudder I could feel in my bones and in the liquid of my eyes. I looked up from my phone and stared.
The gunmen didn’t look human. They wore horror movie masks, and smoke flowed around them as they swung their aim across the crowd. […] I didn’t hear the screams until the terrorists paused to reload.
Luckily, Lizzie comes to her senses eventually. As quietly as she can, she calls 911 as the bullets fly by. The operator on the other end of the telephone tells Lizzie her best bet is to play dead, and in lieu of a safer location, she does exactly that.
A touch too well, in truth, because she faints, and awakens in another world. There, in the land of the no longer living—a grayscale place where “the air [tastes] flat and metallic”—she promptly falls for a foxy psychopomp:
These terrorists had tried to kill me but I’d gone to the land of the dead and now could see ghosts and apparently had acquired dangerous new powers and this boy, this boy had touched my fingertips—and they still tingled.
In the aftermath of the attack, it beggars belief, a bit, that this boy is Lizzie’s priority. Not the loss of so much life. Not her own nearness to nothing. Not even the realisation that she can move between worlds at will. Rather, Yamaraj, “a hot Vedic death god” “modeled […] on a Bollywood star” by his faithless creator, debutant Darcy Patel.
Disarmingly, Westerfeld devotes every other chapter of Afterworlds to Darcy—ostensibly the author of the novel-within-a-novel in which Lizzie learns about love and the afterlife. Written in a rush some time before the framing fiction begins, Darcy’s debut has already been purchased by a publisher, and for a staggering sum. She uses much of this money to buy herself a new life, basically; the life of a real writer, as she sees it, which apparently starts with a studio apartment in New York City.
There, she makes an array of new friends, each of whom is involved in the business of literature in some sense. Amongst such company—including a few famous faces—it’s no wonder that Darcy starts to second guess her own story. In no time at all she’s behind on her rewrites and she still hasn’t started the sequel stipulated in her contract. Then, like Lizzie, she meets someone special. Her name is Imogen, and her superpower is… wordplay, let’s say.
That there are such similarities between Darcy’s half of the narrative and her central character’s chapters is no surprise, and given the wilful way Westerfeld interweaves their worlds, I dare say the resonance is intended. The two tales don’t ever come together—Lizzie never meets her maker in the manner I imagined she might—but Westerfeld builds in a bunch of story beats that repeat to excellent effect at the same time as evidencing exactly what sets Afterworlds’ paired protagonists apart.
I struggled a little with Lizzie, admittedly. Her going all googly-eyed over a pretty boy in the midst of a massacre proved particularly off-putting. Sure, she’s the star of a purported paranormal romance, but that’s all she is in the beginning. She does grow, though; and so does Darcy, albeit from a markedly more measured initial position—from that of an innocent at the outset. No, “she was much worse than innocent; she was oblivious.” Given this, her eventual development into an interesting character—someone smart and strong and responsible—is especially impressive.
As is Afterworlds as a whole, particularly considering its ambition. Wonderfully, Westerfeld is more than a match to the task. His latest is long, but its six hundred pages practically flash past. It runs the risk of repetition at points, but the author—the actual author—uses these moments masterfully as opposed to pretending they aren’t a problem.
Afterworlds is sweet, but far from saccharine, and familiar, if not predictable. Westerfeld’s demystification of the publishing process—depicted as “a mix of serious talk, utter bullshit, self-promotion, and slumber-party giddiness”—is as fascinating as it is affectionate: a game of inside baseball it was a pleasure to play.
But it is love, ultimately, that roots this brilliantly original book. Love between characters, for starters, but also a love of character… not to mention narrative, structure, setting—which is to say story, and so forth storytelling; the practice of these arts above and beyond the actual fact of them.
Appropriately, I adored Afterworlds. To paraphrase one of the publishing peeps Darcy meets, this book’s got the juice. Drink it in.
Afterworlds is available now from Simon & Schuster.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.