I picked up Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld after finding it on a list of books with lesbian/bisexual/queer female protagonists. The descriptions of the book also promised an eighteen-year-old girl learning to navigate adult responsibilities, self-aware YA, and satire poking fun at paranormal teen romance novel. And Afterworlds largely delivers—although without knowing to look for satire, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it, and while the protagonist is a girl who likes girls, it’s unclear if she’s bi or lesbian. However, the main strengths of this book are actually the variety of female characters and all the different relationships between them: it’s populated with girls and women of different ages, including queer women and women of color, who are friends, lovers, siblings, mentors… But I’m getting carried away, so let’s backtrack and proceed in an orderly fashion, shall we?
Spoilers for the book below, obviously.
Afterworlds is essentially two books in one. One story is a realistic young adult novel about Darcy Patel, an eighteen-year-old writer who gets a two-book deal and moves to New York to focus on writing. There she has to learn to live on her own and on a budget, as well as navigate the world of YA publishing. She meets and starts a relationship with Imogen, another writer. The other story is the novel that Darcy wrote, actually titled Afterworlds in the book. It’s a paranormal romance starring Lizzie, who learns to cross over to the Afterworld, where all the dead reside. She becomes a psychopomp (soul guide), or a Grim Reaper. She meets Yama, another psychopomp who lives completely in the Afterworld and therefore hasn’t aged past seventeen years old for thousands of years. Lizzie is immediately infatuated with Yama. She also discovers that there is a ghost of a murdered girl living in her house and works to uncover and punish the killer.
I understand that the story about Lizzie is meant to be a paranormal romance satire, poking fun at all the genre tropes and also written by a teenager. And you have to be careful to keep that always in mind, because otherwise it becomes quite tedious and annoying, since it’s not over-top enough. The first chapter is absolutely brilliant (something that people keep telling Darcy over the course of the book as well): Lizzie is traveling and there’s a terrorist attack at the airport, she’s scared for her life, calls 911 and the operator advises her to play dead; Lizzie does it so effectively that she wills herself to cross over to “the other side”, essentially dying for a little while. This is where she meets Yama, and it’s all downhill from there. Lizzie becomes obsessed with Yama and her new powers, ignoring and forgetting most of other things in her life, which is reflected by the fact that most of the other characters lack personal details (which, again, is something Darcy finds out from her editor’s comments and is horrified). As such, while a necessary part of the book, Lizzie’s story unfortunately feels much weaker compared to the story about Darcy, which is populated with lots of female characters, relationships, and commentary on cultural appropriation, self-awareness, and the more ridiculous aspects of the publishing world.
That being said, the story about Lizzie doesn’t fail entirely. The world of psychopomps pulls you in and you start rooting for Lizzie despite the fact that she’s going down a dangerous path and loses herself to the newly discovered world. However, I get the sense that Westerfeld couldn’t quite make up his mind whether to write it seriously or just make fun of it completely and settled for some sort of middle ground, which doesn’t quite work.
Let’s talk about some of the best things about Afterworlds. I love Darcy Patel, who is a successful writer and a woman of color who likes women, but this is not an “LGBT issue” book. Darcy just falls in love, as characters in YA books do, and it happens to be a woman and this happens to be new to Darcy, but it’s not a source of self-hatred or doubt. Darcy embraces it easily and completely. That being said, it’s not a non-issue either: Darcy does come out to her family and friends and not being out causes some problems in her relationship as well. It’s all woven into Darcy’s new adult life. My only pet peeve about this is that Darcy proclaims herself “Imogen-sexual”, which is a tired trope that’s used most often to avoid the bi label, although it has led some to interpret Darcy as demisexual, which is actually a very fitting analysis and helps explain Darcy’s character more clearly. Additionally, I also love all the practical aspects of adulthood that Darcy has to face, like finding an apartment, budgeting, buying brooms and other boring things. Swept away by New York and wanting to live like her older writer friends, she fails quite spectacularly at being a responsible adult. These details help round out Darcy’s character, making her more than just a queer character struggling with queer problems.
Another awesome thing about this book is the discussion of cultural appropriation, Indian culture in particular. Darcy’s parents come from India, and while Darcy herself isn’t very connected to her culture, her parents and sister maintain Indian cultural and religious practices. Yet Darcy bases the mythology of Afterworlds on the Vedas, which are ancient Hindu scriptures, and Yama is modeled after an Indian death god. She worries that even though she’s of Indian descent, she may not have a right to use the Vedas because she’s so disconnected from that culture. It’s an interesting theme in the book which you don’t see explored in mainstream YA too often, and certainly not with the main character.
Which brings me to relationships between characters. Darcy has a close relationship with her younger sister and confides in her aunt. She has two best friends from high school, one of whom is an Indian boy, even though they become distant when she moves to New York and they go to college. However, they reconnect and they get each other and you get the feeling that Darcy can truly be herself with them, whereas in her relationships with other writers, she tries to pretend a little: she tries to seem older, smarter, and more experienced, even with Imogen, who’s her girlfriend. As the book progresses, Darcy finds out that a lot of these people pretend as well, which helps Darcy, if not grow, at least move past some of her fears, as well as connect to the other writers (and allows for some interesting exploration of the impostor syndrome by Westerfeld).
All in all, Afterworlds may not be exactly what I expected, but in some ways it’s so much better than I predicted, especially in terms of diversity and female characters. Darcy’s story is populated with different women and girls who are all supportive of each other. Westerfeld also discusses cultural appropriation and the phenomenon of YA romance novels. However, the satirical attempt doesn’t succeed entirely, and as such, the actual paranormal novel is the weakest part of the book. Despite that, Afterworlds is a great book and I highly recommend it if you like books about queer girls or if you’re curious to read and laugh about the world of YA publishing.