Friday, September 5, 2014


This review contains a few SPOILERS.

I have been a big fan of some of Scott Westerfeld's work. I loved his Uglies series way back before young adult fiction was popular. The world he created in that book was just so different and surprising, and the plot hooked me through the physical and emotional changes the main character underwent. It was quite different from anything I'd read before. Since then, I've read a lot of dystopian young adult stories, so the novelty has worn off. But that series still stands out to me.

That's why I was so excited to receive an advance reader's copy of his latest book, Afterworlds, and so disappointed when I finished it. Westerfeld continues to try to push boundaries, but Afterworlds tries so hard to avoid all the stereotypes that it sabotages itself into becoming something predictable. Think of what's popular in culture right now: paranormal romance (romance is always popular, but if you can throw in a unique creature as a love interest, all the better), homosexuality, not being American (Americans are selfish and bad!) or at least not being white, individuality in youth, making your own living and being dependent on no one but yourself. (It's popular to not be stereotypical, which is sort of ironic, isn't it?) All these elements are thrown together in Westerfeld's story about an 18-year-old gay, Indian girl living on her own in New York City off the extravagant advance she gets for writing a paranormal romance. Like I said, it's so non-stereotypical it's predictable. The only truly unique thing I found in Afterworlds is that it is two stories in one. Every other chapter switches as you follow two plotlines: that of Darcy Patel's writing woes in New York and that of the manuscript she has written, a rather blasé love story between a girl whose experiences in a terrorist attack (the most interesting thing about the whole book) make her see ghosts and the boy she meets in the ghost world.

Westerfeld's characters are usually fairly complex, not wholly good or bad but an intriguing mix. Even in the Uglies series, I didn't always love them, but they fascinated me. In Afterworlds, I didn't like either of his protagonists. I couldn't find a reason to root for them. Darcy is naive, swayed by others' opinions, clingy, and a spendthrift. Though the novel points out her flaws, it doesn't help me like her better. Lizzie, the protagonist of Darcy's novel, is infatuated at first sight-and-kiss with a boy she meets in the middle of a terrible disaster. Though her deathly experiences supposedly give her a new role and purpose in life (and death), she muddles around for awhile, directionless. She is largely defined throughout the book by her connection to the boy she's kissed, and she doesn't have a lot to do on her own. SPOILER ALERT! But when she purposefully murders someone late in the book, any connection I thought I might have been forming with her was severed. The book doles out consequences for this murder, but none of it seems like enough, and the fact that the murder is committed at all just turns me off.

I gave this a two-star rating on Goodreads because on their five-star rating system, two stars means the book is okay. I didn't completely dislike it. I did read it through, after all. But I was disappointed in the story and the morals. I've already mentioned the murder. In addition, though there's nothing too graphic, Darcy's girlfriend does live with her, and the rest is implied. I won't go into the ethics of homosexuality here, but I will reiterate how culturally attuned this novel seems to want to be. By hitting on all our current cultural prejudices and preferences, this book just appears to be trying too hard. You might almost think it was mocking these aspects of modern culture, but it's too serious about itself for that. If this is the direction YA fiction is going, it's going to lose me. I love young adult fiction for its stories, but when they fail to engage or surprise me or when they become commentaries on culture, some of the innocence and simplicity of the genre is lost. They have grown up. They have become too self-aware....

But let's shake off the ghost of the future, shall we? We aren't there yet. This is just one book, and there are at least 30 books on my to-read shelf, half of which have to be at least a little interesting, right? Time to browse my ARC library and stow the cynicism. Forgive me for having a little fun with this review. There always seems to be more to write when there's negative feedback to give. Please remember that I do highly recommend Westerfeld's earlier Uglies series.

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