Several years ago, I devoured Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. It was around the time that I first became aware of dystopian YA novels, and the premise – civilization destroyed by a bug that eats oil and oil-based products, and enforced plastic surgery as a rite of passage – intrigued me. I loved the books, reading the original three (I’ve never read Extras) in fairly quick succession, and wanted to check out some of Westerfeld’s other work, but – as so often happens with good intentions – got caught up in other things.
A couple of months ago, I noticed Westerfeld’s latest novel, Afterworlds, and decided it was high time I reacquainted myself with him as an author. Like Uglies, the novel’s conceit was interesting as it is essentially a book within a book, with chapters alternating between Darcy Patel, the real-world protagonist, and Lizzie Scofield, the main character in Darcy’s first novel, also titled Afterworlds.
In Darcy’s Afterworlds, written during NaNoWriMo, Lizzie is a California teenager caught in a terrorist attack at an airport on her way home from visiting her father in New York City. To survive, she plays dead and somehow wills her consciousness into the underworld, or the “flipside” as she calls it, and becomes one of the few people who can move back and forth between that world and ours. Once there, she falls in love with a thousand-year-old death god named Yamaraj and becomes an avenging angel of sorts, righting wrongs that she learns about now that she can see ghosts and traverse multiple astral planes.
I know that all sounds a little convoluted, and believe me, it is. The story also moves really fast, with Lizzie never seeming to process what has happened to her. I’m pretty sure it would take me some time to get used to seeing ghosts everywhere, but Lizzie just seems to accept it like it’s no big deal. And her relationship, if you can call it that, with Yamaraj drove me crazy. It reminded me of every other teen paranormal romance novel where the main characters are madly in love with each other from the get-go. I mean, she knows absolutely nothing about this guy, but can’t seem to live without him?! I just didn’t find it that believable and wondered if we’re doing future generations a disservice by suggesting that this is the way love works. Or maybe I’m just being cynical.
To me, the really interesting parts of Westerfeld’s Afterworlds were all of the chapters concerning Darcy. As a professional editor and someone who constantly thinks about working in the publishing industry, I found all of the details about her writing process, dealing with her editor, meeting her YA idols, living in the big city, and falling in love fascinating, and a lot more relatable. You also got a chance to see Darcy evolve from the wide-eyed ingénue to a more mature writer. Her conversations with Imogen, another writer and Darcy’s eventual girlfriend, were also fun to pay attention to because the changes and plot points they discussed often showed up in Lizzie’s story. It gave you, as the reader, a chance to peek behind the curtain and see how a first draft changes over time, something many of us don’t get to see.
But as enjoyable as Darcy’s chapters were, they weren’t quite enough to save the book for me. The rush of Lizzie’s story threw me off and I just never got that invested in the characters. Which is a shame, because I would have liked to know more about Westerfeld’s afterworld and the people that populated it; he just didn’t take the time to explain them.