Book Review: Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld

Darcy is a precocious teenager who wrote a novel in high school, managed to sell it to a publisher in a major deal, and has decided to skip her first year of college to head to New York and try to become a ‘real’ writer. Her book is a YA fantasy about a girl who falls in love with a Hindu god after a near-death experience that allows her to cross over to the afterworld, seeing and interacting with ghosts. In Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworldschapters alternate between Darcy’s daily life and her novel, as we watch Darcy navigate the chaotic city around her as her novel takes shape, influenced by edits, the people around her, and shifting attitudes within her own mind.

The result is a highly meta reading experience, made more so by the fact that in Darcy’s chapters, we’re not just reading about a novelist, but about the heart of the publishing business, including some of its more daunting and ugly aspects. We see Darcy as a naive, excited teen who’s just sold her first novel, but then we see her crash against the New York establishment and realise that the city is so much more expensive, confusing, and demanding than she realised it would be.

Darcy’s chapters follow an arc as she arrives in New York City, is mysteriously taken in among the YA publishing elite despite her young age, falls in love, and has her heart broken. Meanwhile, the novel-within-a-novel tracks Lizzie from a terrorist attack in an airport, to her discovery of the fact that she can see ghosts, to falling in love, to tangling with the wrong spirits, and the realisation that she may be forced to make difficult choices to save the afterworld and make it a safe place for those she loves.

Westerfeld obviously drew heavily on his own experience in publishing for Darcy’s chapters, speckling them with thinly-veiled references to various YA authors, publishing houses, and experiences. We meet both Darcy’s agent and editor, we see her taken through the revisions process (she has, if I may say so, a pretty ace copyeditor), and we see her struggle with demands for critical changes as well as work on her second novel. Meanwhile, she’s falling in love with another YA author, spending almost all her time with her and experiencing inner conflict as she struggles over how to come out to her family.

In a sense, Darcy is living in a fantasy world in New York City, where she gets to remake herself, and the other characters ultimately call her on it, bringing her back to Earth and challenging her to ground herself in who she is, not who she wants to be. As a young woman of colour in an industry that can be challenging, she’s also coming up against cultural and racial issues that the white people around her don’t have to consider, including the question of whether she’s appropriating from her own culture by including a Hindu death god in her novel.

The fact that this issue is directly engaged with is intriguing, and the setup is somewhat unusual. White authors frequently appropriate in their work, an issue that’s been a subject of much discussion among the YA community in addition to authors of colour who want to be able to tell their own stories, rather than have white people wrench them from them. But what happens when Darcy, an Indian girl, uses a figure from the Vedas, even though her Hindu family isn’t terribly devout? Watching her wrestle with this is fascinating, and I hope that Westerfeld worked with Hindu authors and consultants to explore this aspect of her character.

This is also a book about teen sexuality and relationships, and how Darcy falls in love too fast with a girl who’s older than her. The age and cultural tensions between the two become an important part of the story, as Darcy has low self-confidence and sometimes crushing anxiety, while her girlfriend has reached a more stable point in her life. The interplay between the two characters comes out not just in Darcy’s chapters, but also in the novel, which is shaped by Darcy’s own relationship as she works on edits and is influenced, sometimes unconsciously, by her girlfriend.

Precocious teens often have this problem — they enter a world of more mature people because they don’t fit in comfortably with their age group, but sometimes they don’t fit entirely perfectly in that group, either. Darcy’s experiences spoke to my own as a teenager who left home at 15 for college, and struggled to make my way, realising that being smart, and more mature than many people my age, didn’t necessarily prepare me for an environment filled with people who were older than me, at different stages in their lives and experiences.

This doesn’t mean that teens can’t and shouldn’t be offered opportunities to explore such social circles, or that they’re incapable of navigating them, but it can be hard. Westerfeld acknowledged that in a well-crafted way that didn’t make Darcy seem like a child, or suggest that teens must be incapable of relating to adults no matter how sophisticated they think they are. Instead, he highlighted the very real experience of realising that you fit into a strange social and cultural category, and you’re going to have to carve out a space for yourself before you’ll be able to be comfortable.

Afterworlds is a fascinating read for the metacommentary alone (you’ll want to flip it over and start all over again when you finish), but it’s also a book with many layers to it, and I suspect I’m going to be reading it again and again in the future to explore the story at length, because it can’t be digested in one go.