Complex Sword-and-Sorcery: The Afterward by E.K. Johnston

Every so often, a book comes along that I fall in love with entirely. A book that hooks its fingers into my heart and soul and nests there. Last year the novel that did that to the most precise, complete point was Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace. Although they’re very different books, this year it looks like E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward is a strong contender.

Johnston is perhaps best known at this point in her career for her Star Wars work (Star Wars: Ahsoka, with Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow forthcoming), but her original fiction has included both the critically-acclaimed contemporary novel Exit, Pursued by a Bear, and the striking science fictional That Inevitable Victorian Thing (which, certain elements of its worldbuilding aside, presents a deeply compelling story of self-discovery and the intersection of romance with responsibility). With The Afterward, she ventures into the territory of sword-and-sorcery, and casts a nod towards the epic fantasy of the late 1980s. The Afterward is set in the aftermath of a successful quest to vanquish an ancient evil, when the fellowship has disbanded and returned to the lives that the quest interrupted, and the responsibilities that come with those lives.

Johnston divides her narrative into alternating sections of Before and After, using a first-person voice for her two narrators in the Before sections, and a close third person perspective for each of those narrators in the After ones. Occasionally there is an interlude from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, to set the scene or to provide the reader with context not necessarily available to the main characters. This division of voices might seem jarring, but in Johnston’s hands it works seamlessly, compellingly—and gives us the hint that their participation in the quest changed both of the main characters in ways that aren’t necessarily initially obvious.

Those main characters are Kalanthe Ironheart, an apprentice knight, and Olsa Rhetsdaughter, a thief. As the youngest members of the questing party, they fell into each other’s company a lot—and eventually became lovers. (In this novel, Johnston’s written the most intimate and affecting sex scene I’ve ever read without using a single word or phrase that couldn’t be read out over a school intercom system without a murmur.) But once the quest ends, Olsa has no place with the other quest companions: She returns to thievery, because she has her pride and she refuses to take charity. Unfortunately, she keeps being arrested, since she keeps being set up by her former bosses. Even her status as a hero of the realm can’t keep her neck from the noose forever, especially since at some point Kalanthe won’t be able to keep interceding for her.

Kalanthe, meanwhile, will have to marry money as soon as she’s old enough to be officially knighted. In order to finance her knightly training, she took on a great deal of personal debt—warhorses being expensive things—and she has no choice about paying it back. To make matters worse, marriages for people in her situation are usually contracted for the getting of heirs, and not only is she in love with Olsa, but unlike Olsa, she has no desire for men at all.

Will matters come out happily for them both in the end? What did happen on the godsgem quest? And what’s the matter with the godsgem now? These are the questions that The Afterward poses, and sets out to answer—with Johnston’s usual deft touch for prose and narrative tension, and with her gift for writing believable, complicated characters who face complex problems.

The Afterward is tense but measured, with brilliantly compelling characters who represent a diverse array of women: Johnston effortlessly makes clear that this is a world where trans women are properly acknowledged as women, asexuality is respected, and a wide spectrum of queer desire exists. It’s also clear that her main characters are definitely not white. The Afterward reminds me in tone of Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor or Becky Chambers’ The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. At root, it’s a novel about kindness, power, and responsibility. Reading it feels a lot like getting a hug. (And did I mention the love scene?)

This is a tremendously accomplished novel. I admire it for its craft as well as loving it for what it made me feel. I recommend it wholeheartedly. Go and read it. Now.

The Afterward is available from Dutton Books for Young Readers.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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