Scott Westerfeld has some great books. I loved his Uglies series, particularly the fourth book, Extras, which was an interesting alternative perspective on the world--the main character's story but through the eyes of someone who would typically be considered a minor character. And so when I was looking for a book to fulfill a reading challenge category for "a story within a story," Afterworlds seemed to be an obvious selection. Half of the book is about Darcy Patel, a teenager who's just scored a huge publishing contract for a book she wrote during National Novel Writing Month (though the event itself is never referred to by name)--and I mean a huge publishing contract. Three hundred thousand dollars of a publishing contract for the book and its sequel. The other half of the book is Afterworlds, Darcy's book, itself, about a girl named Lizzie who survives a terrorist attack by thinking herself dead, and then finds out she's been transformed into a psychopomp/valkyrie/grim reaper type of being along the way.
Both halves of this book are intriguing in and of themselves, but I'm not sure they work as a coherent whole. On one hand, Darcy is going through a rewriting process for much of the book, so we get to hear what the inner story was like before it becomes the version we read, which is an interesting dynamic. But on the other hand, fitting both stories into a normal-length book means that neither really feels like it's getting fleshed out or is as interesting as it could potentially be. For example, there's not much that actually happens in Darcy's own story. She moves to New York, eats, writes or avoids writing, and begins a relationship with another Young Adult author, Imogen Gray (more on this later). But that's pretty much it. Darcy doesn't actually do a ton of growing throughout the book, and her part actually felt like it was giving aspiring young authors extremely unrealistic expectations of how writing and selling a book works. A first-time author getting a six-figure advance for a book? Hm...seems unlikely. As did everything that followed. The parts that felt the realest were Darcy's travails, but they're frequently overshadowed by her new and glamorous New York Life which...doesn't really seem like it's how it would work...
For the Afterworlds story, it's really only half a story, which is part of the problem. Part of Darcy's task is to write a sequel to Afterworlds, but Westerfeld himself actually hasn't and doesn't appear to have plans to do so, which means that Lizzie's story just kind of stops with a lot of threads unresolved. Additionally, there's a relatively dark story line at the center of Lizzie's story about her seeking justice for the ghost of a little girl, which results in terrible actions on Lizzie's part, but the seriousness of these are never really addressed, she gets off without any big consequences, and there doesn't even seem to really be a permanent affect on her character, which was rather disappointing. And while the version of Afterworlds that we read is supposed to be Darcy's finished product, after her edits and re-writes, some of the issues that her editor mentions linger on, almost making it seem like a caricature of itself at some point. I think a full-length Afterworlds would have been fascinating and probably a best seller in and of itself, but mixed in with real-world Darcy's story, it just doesn't mesh well enough.
That said, there are some high points here. There's some really good advice for aspiring writers woven throughout, especially regarding story structure, that's likely to make anyone working on a first draft re-think about how things should be set up. And then there's Darcy and Imogen themselves. They have a wonderfully sweet and supportive relationship, even when they have rough patches. Darcy's family is also ultimately so supportive of her relationship--not knowing that Darcy liked girls before she moved to New York, since even Darcy herself hadn't been sure. But Westerfeld doesn't try to turn this into a book about "discovering one's sexuality" and doesn't turn to the trope that so many authors do that a gay relationship automatically fails to add #drama. I think it was well-done and it's balanced by Lizzie's straight relationship with Yama in Afterworlds in a sort of contrast...especially because Lizzie and Yama's relationship is the one with dark tones to it. It was also fun wondering what parts of characters Westerfeld might have incorporated from other authors of his acquaintance, and what titles and story ideas that have been discarded over time made appearances in the book as other authors' stories.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read but I don't think it was an excellent one. Neither part of the book was really enough on its own, and it kind of felt like Westerfeld had two half-done ideas so he decided to combine them rather than digging into expand either one into a full-length work of its own. But I got to read it for free on Riveted, where it was featured for part of April, so I still think it was a worthy use of time.
3.5 stars out of 5.