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Until this year, I hadn't read any Scott Westerfeld at all. I'd had Uglies recommended to me by multiple people but had just never gotten around to it. Once I finally did pick up Uglies, I churned through the series like one does a bag of potato chips, compulsively, one right after another. But I'm not here to talk about Uglies. I'm here because I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy (or ARC, to those in-the-know, which I most certainly wasn't) of Scott Westerfeld's new book, Afterworlds.
Afterworlds is due out in September and io9 exclusively released a book trailer for it recently, which you can view here. (A note: io9's description of the plot is pretty deceptive; it kind of implies that the world of the writer and the world of her book interact in some supernatural way, which is not true.) When I told a friend that my ARC was in the mail, she told me she was interested to hear what I thought, since it was supposed to be quite a divergence from Westerfeld's usual work. I haven't read all this work, so I can't confirm that with authority, but it is definitely very different from what I have read.
Usually I have a spoiler warning here, but since this book isn't even out yet, I'm just going to keep it general and spoiler-free!
Half of Afterworlds follows teen writer Darcy Patel, a NaNoWriMo winner whose month's efforts result in a massive book deal with a big-name publisher. The other half is Darcy's book, a supernatural romance about psychopomps (guides for the dead) featuring main character Lizzie. Although the stories don't intermingle as io9 suggests, they support each other perfectly, chapters lining up in a way that brings us through both stories with a greater understanding of each than we would've had reading one without the other. I think each storyline could stand on its own and be good, but paired, the stories each become exceptional.
In Lizzie's story, we see a girl struggling to live in two worlds, dealing with heavy issues like surviving a traumatic experience, dealing with totally relatable family issues, and of course... her dealings with death, ghosts, and the afterlife. It's a complex story for being only half of Westerfeld's novel, and could've easily been simpler and more two-dimensional and still gotten the job done. But we're told repeatedly in Darcy's story that her novel is stand-out, and Westerfeld delivers on that promise in Lizzie's actual pages.
But it's Darcy's story that I think makes the novel. We follow the recent high school graduate through both the joys and fears of her sudden catapult into YA-renown, from moving to New York to meeting YA veterans and other new writers to dealing with complex edits and demands to handling her first serious relationship. We see Darcy struggle, grow, and learn, and I have to say that as a YA writer myself, it was both frightening and wildly exciting.
I think it's fairly clear that a lot of Darcy's story is autobiographical, and many of the famous writers she rubs elbows with are caricatures of and combinations of YA writers we all know and love. That makes every exciting and glamorous detail of her new life that much more vivid for me. It was hard not to insert myself into Darcy's story, imagining what it would be like if my book got picked up by a big publishing house like hers, and if I, too, could attend "YA drinks night" and share a beer with authors I idolize. I'm sure other writers will feel the same, which is why I recommend this book for everyone, but especially for writers.
Writers are always readers, so of course reading is motivational, but never has a book so consistently filled me with the itch to write as this one did. Not just because of how wonderful it sounded, being indoctrinated into the secret club of published writers, but because of how well-written Darcy's passion for writing is. I think all writers will see themselves in the different phases of her work, from the fevered churning out of chapter after chapter in a single sitting to the fear of never being able to write a readable word again, all previous work being sort of a fluke. Darcy is eminently relatable in her fears and struggles, which makes her success feel relatable, too. That, in turn, makes Afterworlds an unexpectedly "feel-good" read.
From a craft perspective, I thought Afterworlds was miles beyond the Uglies series (which makes sense, since Uglieswas published almost a decade ago). I won't sing any specific praises for his prose because what makes his writing so great on a sentence-to-sentence level is that it effectively disappears, allowing the reader to immerse themselves totally in the story. As the late Maya Angelou famously said, "Easy reading is damn hard writing."
And finally, without spoiling any specific events, I want to assure readers that as a particularly shout-y social justice activist, I was thrilled by the diversity of character in Afterworlds (and not just side characters, main characters) written believably and non-offensively by a white male, which is something I firmly believe should be applauded. I think it's hugely important that there be characters of all genders, races, religions, and sexual orientation represented in YA fiction, and more importantly, we need to stop making those traits define them and their stories. Westerfeld successfully achieves this in Afterworlds, and we can show publishers and booksellers with our money that we want more of that by purchasing and vocally supporting this book.
My final verdict: I highly recommend it (especially to writers)
Have you readAfterworlds by Scott Westerfeld? What did you think? Tell me in the comments!