Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


I vividly remember the first book I read that utilised the dual storyline: The Fifth Quest by Debra Oswald, which we studied in Year Five. There was no small amount of resentful grumbling about it, as you might expect with any ‘studied’ textbook, but I was fascinated by how the book managed to be 'two in one', creating a parallel fantasy plot (with strong female protagonists!) and a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes of TV show production and stardom.

After writing stories of my own, I had two words for the task of writing two equally appealing, interacting stories: organisational nightmare.

Scott Westerfeld presumably took one look and said, "Needs more meta."

The interaction between the storylines is one of most impressive and most complex aspects about the book that really highlights advantages of the dual storyline. There were parallels, extra backstory, revisions and Darcy’s ‘right ending’ trouble unfolding in the middle of the final version of Afterworlds builds up anticipation for the ending.

The fact the novel did not revolve around overcoming challenges about the character’s culture or sexuality probably makes it more subtly radical than books that are so enthusiastically PC that they begin taking on an artificial ‘after school special’ vibe. I’m not sure if this approach erases important context from the aforementioned issues but I found this more understated deconstruction of heteronormativity and the Stern Indian Parent stereotype kind of refreshing (from what I’ve seen of the Indian social network in Sydney, though, Darcy would definitely have more than just one aunt in NYC).

‘Playful’ is a good word to describe Darcy’s story – a nod and wink to the YA crowd and online fan culture with inside jokes that I've probably missed (is bunyip a code word?). It really rewards those who read enough to be surprised (and amused) by the subversion of tropes like the ‘sad childhood trauma incident’. The author lampshades a lot of issues: cultural appropriation, the Angelina Jolie paradox, the Universal White Girl Protagonist, the Jane Austen/Carl Sagan references. Some might find the self-consciousness a little off-putting, but I think it’s great that the author is clearly aware about underlying problems, even if they’re left unaddressed.

I was fascinated by the Afterworlds concept, especially the ghost and memory connection. The interesting blend of genres in YA novels is what continues to draw me in and it’s no secret I particularly enjoy Westerfeldian premises (full disclosure: the novel idea I’ve been nurturing in my head for ages revolves around death gods, so reading this was a bit of a ‘closet moment’). There was a haze of unreality and probably PTSD for Lizzie throughout so it was harder to ‘connect’ with her emotionally but the pace was brisk and story compelling.

Darcy as a character is all you might expect of a precocious teenager edging into ‘adulthood’- lots of self-doubt, self-awareness and achingly relatable imposter syndrome – but with youthful recklessness and impulsiveness. She’s a good blend of relatable and aspirational (because, really, haven’t we all dreamt of being catapulted to novelist fame before we turn 18?).

Darcy's storyline, in particular, doesn't linger too much on side characters (though I do love Nisha's Dess-like snarkiness) but the one quibble I have for the Imogen/Darcy (Darmogen? Imarcy?) romance was that it progressed surprisingly quickly. Not a problem in itself but since I’m suddenly older than most YA protagonists, I found myself aligning with Imogen’s perspective more than Darcy and wanting more insight about what drew her to Darcy in the first place (beyond having 'juice' as an author).

All in all, the book is quite an easy, quick read and gold for bright-eyed author-hopefuls.

I said at the beginning that Afterworlds showcases the potential of the dual storyline but it also defines a kind of ‘fictional’ meta of the Inception ‘We must go deeper’ kind. Things that Lizzie says reflect what Darcy experiences, which are things that could easily be things the author is saying to the reader about writing and then you realise everything’s still inside the one novel. What the book does is place the novel within a broader context of writing, rewriting, editing, publishing and sales, and you put the book down, wondering which parts were real and if Scott Westerfeld had come up with the perfect ending after four months of re-writes or if it had been there all along.

Experimenting with some new brushes and painting styles for the fanart below.

Afterworlds, Scott Westerfeld, Darcy Patel, fanart