Scott Westerfeld gets very meta in Afterworlds. Weighing in at 599 pages, this is really two quite disparate books presented in alternating chapters – one about a writer and one is her actual novel. Darcy Patel, the writer in the ‘real world’ is a high school graduate who bashed out a novel during NaNoWriMo, which was snapped up by a publisher for a large advance. Darcy takes the money and moves to New York to live in “YA heaven.” Lizzie Schofield, the “protag” of her novel Afterworlds, survives a near-death experience during a terrorist attack when she is saved by a “hot Vedic death god”, falls in love with him and becomes a psychopomp – a guide of souls to the afterlife.
The hook that links these two stories comes from Darcy’s editor: “Your first novel is like your first relationship. You won’t really understand the decisions you make until years later…And you’ll probably screw up the ending.” Because Darcy’s story is also a romance, as she meets a fellow writer, Imogen Gray, and falls in love for the first time. And links can be found as the reader sees Darcy’s real life leaking into the re-write of her novel – from the co-opting of her agent’s apartment to the use of the world panopticon, we follow her development both as a person and as a writer.
Darcy’s story also includes the nitty gritty of publishing a book – from the endless re-writes and edits, to book tours and even the pressure of needing to start Untitled Patel, the yet to be named sequel to Afterworlds.
Meanwhile, Lizzie’s story is a more than just a slightly cheesy paranormal romance. By lifting themes from the Hindi scriptures, the Vedas, Darcy elevates the world building (while questioning her appropriation), and also adds in a chilling mystery. Westerfeld manages to make novel-within-novel Afterworlds feel like a something a gifted American-Indian teenager could have written, while keeping it as a genuinely gripping and layered piece of writing.
To be honest, I was much more interested in Darcy’s chapters – living in an old dance studio in Chinatown, falling in love with a sophisticated writer, and being a highly paid novelist with “juice” is a much more appealing fantasy to me than being swept off my feet by a hunky 17 year old. But I can see that for a teen reader it might well be the other way round – just showing my age.