Monday, 1 September 2014

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld hooked me when I read the extract in NetGalley's Buzz Books compilation. The second chapter was excellent (the first was more of a prologue) and when the extract left me hanging (as, I suppose, all good extracts should), I absolutely had to get a hold of it. Luckily, I was able to get a review copy and devour it in a few days. Blurb from Simon & Schuster's website because it's better than the goodreads one:
Believing is dangerous.

Darcy Patel is afraid to believe all the hype. But it’s really happening—her teen novel is getting published. Instead of heading to college she’s living in New York City, where she's welcomed into the dazzling world of YA publishing. That means book tours, parties with her favorite authors, and finding a place to live that won't leave her penniless. It means sleepless nights rewriting her first draft, and struggling to find the perfect ending . . . all while dealing with the intoxicating, terrifying experience of falling in love—with another writer.

Told in alternating chapters is Darcy’s novel, the thrilling story of Lizzie, who wills her way into the afterworld to survive a deadly terrorist attack. With survival comes the responsibility to guide the restless spirits that walk our world, including one ghost with whom she shares a surprising personal connection. But Lizzie’s not alone in her new calling—she has counsel from an extremely hot fellow spirit guide, who is torn between wanting Lizzie and warning her that . . .

Believing is dangerous.
As the blurb suggests, Afterworlds is really two novels in one. Darcy is a teen writer who got an incredible book deal for the YA novel she wrote in her last year of high school during NaNoWriMo (although, actually, I'm pretty sure NaNoWriMo is never referred to directly, but she wrote it all in November, so one makes assumptions). Because of the book deal (and the giant pile of money that came with it), she puts off going to college and instead moves to New York to do revisions and write the sequel she's under contract for. Her story is about writing and about growing up.

Every alternating chapter is a chapter from Darcy's novel. Darcy's novel is a paranormal YA with pscyhopomps and mythology borrowed from Hinduism. It's pretty dark, mostly dealing with death, ghosts and the afterworld. I think if the two novels in one were taken apart, then the fictional (-er) story could stand alone but Darcy's story probably couldn't. But putting two stories together like this allows Westerfeld to explore the process of writing and various issues that can arise. Darcy's story would not have worked without having the chapters she and the other writers were discussing there for us to read.

In exploring the process of writing, a lot of different issues arise. On the more mundane side of things, Darcy finds herself thrown into the world of adults straight out of high school and with little preparation. She worries about fitting in, being seen as a real writer and whether her book was a fluke. At the same time, she meets other writers mete out advice, support and offer friendship. And discussion about books, her book and the process of writing. Some of the issues they discuss are whether it's OK for Darcy to appropriate bits of her parents' religion (when she herself is an atheist) and base a character more on a Bollywood actor than the religious figure, and the dilemma of having made her protagonist white while she herself is Indian. Darcy also runs into the interesting problem of having the people she meets assume she's older than she is (for a long time, she doesn't tell anyone she's only 18) and treating her as such, especially by making assumptions about her already been to college. Stuff like that, which only contributes to Darcy's imposter syndrome.

The other thing the double story allows Westerfeld to do is explore the mind of the writer which leads to certain choices in their books (something, I think, which is particularly applicable to a writer's first book). The version of Darcy's novel that we are privy to is the final version that eventually gets published. But part of following Darcy's story is her rewrites and the dilemmas she has along the way. The opening chapter seems to have been the only constant thing as we hear second hand accounts of overly "Disney" scenes that Darcy removes and her endless search for a new ending. The latter was particularly interesting; we hear a lot about the endings she doesn't choose but we don't find out what ending she did write until we actually got to the end of the book and read the last chapter. It also allows for some discussion of what publishers want from authors and books and why.

There were also several answers to the much maligned question of "where do you get your ideas?" We learn fairly early on where Darcy got some of the key ideas for her novel and as the story progresses, we also learn about where the other writer-characters get various types of ideas from, where it's OK to borrow ideas from and from where one shouldn't borrow ideas. (And there's a really hilarious bit at the end when Darcy finds out something about the story she thought she was writing <spoiler redacted>.) And, of course, some of the authors may or may not bear some resemblance to certain real-life people...

Because this book deals so much with the nature of writing, I suspect writers and other book-world people will probably enjoy it more than the average reader who doesn't spend much time contemplating where books come from. I know that aspect definitely enhanced my enjoyment. I thought the two storylines fed off each other quite nicely. When one was moving a bit slowly, something exciting was happening in the other and vice versa. I've spent most of this review talking about Darcy the writer and not about Lizzie the fictional (-er) character, who plays just as important a role and has as much page time and character development. Lizzie's story is compelling and, in terms of YA tropes, reasonably uncommon — and it is her exciting first chapter (officially chapter 2) that hooked me — but it's not overly remarkable. What makes Afterworlds remarkable is the nested nature of Lizzie's narrative. By itself it would have been a quick fun read (although I should note that Afterworlds is roughly the length of two shortish YA books, so it's not that pared down), but with the other story it's a fascinating deconstruction of the YA genre and the writing process.

I highly recommend this book to writers and people interested in the book industry. Fans of YA, especially fans with writing aspirations will, I think, find much to enjoy here. I suspect readers with no interest in the writing process or readers looking for only one of contemporary YA (slash new adult for Darcy's story) or dark paranormal YA will be disappointed. This is not a straightforward book.

5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2014, Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Series: I don't think so
Format read: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss

No comments:

Post a Comment