If you’re involved in any writing course or writers’ group you’ll invariably find yourself faced with a seminar of some sort about The Publishing Industry. These are generally informative and terrifying, and detail all sorts of fun stuff like the importance of getting an agent, rejection letters, editors missing the point of the story and wanting to change weird shit, and how you must rewrite everything at least sixty times before it’s ready to hit an appraisal office’s desk let alone shelves. It can all be disheartening and scary and all that business can shrivel your creativity to a raisin-like state, so it was a breath of fresh and intriguing air to find a novel about The Publishing Industry in Scott Westerfeld’s Afterworlds. And one that got really gay, too! Bonus!
Lizzie Scofield survives a terrorist attack by pretending to be dead—and she pretends so well that she wills herself in the afterworld, the in-between grey-scale realm populated by ghosts and spirit guides. This act has planted her in a limbo state between alive and dead that makes her a spirit guide/grim reaper/psychopomp/Valkyrie herself, and she begins to learn how this all works from the sparkling and handsome Yamaraj… this is the plot of Darcy Patel’s debut novel. By luck that even she can’t quite believe, Darcy’s passion project (created for something that is never named NaNoWriMo but definitely is) is accepted by a New York publisher and bought for a huge sum of money, propelling the eighteen-year-old into the world of Professional Writers.
Scott Westerfeld is always oddly hit or miss with me—I loved Uglies but its sequel Pretties killed my joy and interest in the series, Peeps was fascinating but his steampunk trilogy Leviathan held none of the same spark for me. Afterworlds manages to hit and miss me with the same book: the novel alternates between chapters about Darcy’s life rewriting and networking, and chapters of the novel she’s written, leaving the reader leaping from paranormal romance to literary coming of age story. I was completely sucked in by Darcy’s adventures in New York, and the weird and fascinating world of the writing and publishing community was as fantastical to me as the made-up realms between the land of the living and the dead that she writes about.
Darcy’s Afterworlds would not necessarily have grabbed my attention had I seen it as a real standalone book, but that said I did end up sucked into it towards the end. My tolerance for YA and especially YA paranormal romance is reaching a notorious low, and I doubt I would’ve gotten to that point had I not been eager to see what was happening with Darcy on the other side of each grey-topped chapter. Though of course, you couldn’t have one without the other and have it be a complete novel—you can see aspects of Darcy’s life and musings cleverly woven into the novel she’s written, and so the fictional chapters come to oddly reflect the “real world” ones, as indeed most books do for their authors. Honestly I could have read about Darcy’s writing antics and floundering peeks into the grown-up publishing world forever, but I do have to wonder if part of the appeal of that personal journey is that it’s balanced out with paranormal action and ghosts. And spirit guides stolen from Hindu scripture, in the case of Yamaraj.
It’s nice to see that Westerfeld is Down With the Kids and is actually talking about things like representation and cultural appropriation as though they’re actual problems for the world to consider and not just some silly stuff Tumblr made up. Darcy is ethnically Indian, but isn’t a practicing Hindu herself, so borrowing a death god from her parents’ faith, designing him after a Bollywood star she had the hots for as a tween, and making him the love interest in a paranormal romance brings up a few issues. Darcy wonders if she really has any right to magpie details from a legitimate religion if that religion isn’t hers—and indeed, would it be okay if she was a practicing Hindu? The issue comes up when she meets an author who based a lot of her books’ magic on indigenous Australian folklore and got in a lot of trouble, and it’s certainly food for thought. It even raises the question “is it alright for Scott Westerfeld, a white dude, to write a story from the point of view of an Indian character and bring it up in the first place?” but I feel like the point is made elegantly enough in the story that this discussion is probably only going to muddle things.
Darcy is also, it’s definitely worth noting, a YA heroine who is neither white nor straight. One of the brand new scary grown-up things she has to deal with is falling in love with another writer, who, though she’s a bit Mysterious Mature Manic Pixie to begin with, is as much of layered and vivid character as Darcy is. Their relationship dynamic is built on joyously playful and intellectual banter and the raw passion for creativity and stories that they share, and it was beautiful to see the love story of these two compatible and relatable young women unfold. Despite having the hots for a male Bollywood star, at least enough to base a love interest on his image, the word “bisexual” or any identifying word is never dropped. In fact, when asked if she’s “gay now” Darcy just shrugs in confusion that she’d rather not deal with, and says she’s “Imogen-sexual” because she doesn’t really notice anyone else. So hey, she may even be demi…
Aaand I had something else written here about how that was probably too much to hope for and it was more likely a cheeky excuse not to label her, but then I found this Tweet so!! Never mind!! Damn!!!
More than anything else this is a book about books. Honestly it was refreshing to read about a young girl who loves writing, reading and all things bookish and have her interests and fervour feel solid and realistic, as opposed to the weird default setting that Girls Who Read are classic-loving willow fronds of people who get a strange superiority complex foisted upon them. The entire story is infused with love and passion for stories, and it comes off as real and not pretentious or wafty. Of course this is largely helped by the fact that Westerfeld is a writer working in New York, himself part of a whole squad of YA writers (and indeed married to Justine Larbalestier, who attended a panel I went to years ago alongside Libba Bray where they talked about the YA writing community and how they occasionally like to play pranks on John Green), so he certainly knows what he’s talking about. The experiences Darcy goes through are grounded in reality, but so, very much, is the love and drive she and everyone around her feels.
Basically, this novel made me want to run to a bookshop and rub my face on everything, to read, to aggressively support authors, to engage in as many stories as I can find, and to write, and to hope that maybe one day I and many others can be in Darcy’s somewhat miraculous and terrifying position (eccentric writer girlfriend optional at this point). It was validating in many ways; it showed book fans full of ecstatic adoration who weren’t parodies, authors who were ordinary and fun human beings who struggled with the work they loved, quite unlike the creative gods they can seem like, it showed a world where stories are everything and people really care—editors, publication teams, friends, lovers—about made up stories. The afterworld Yamaraj and his sexy, morally-questionable ilk hang out in might be fantasy, but in a wild turn of events the world of book publishing actually exists. It was incredibly fun to dip into it through the safe curiosity of a fun and sweet novel.