Elinor reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

afterworlds

Afterworlds may be one book, but it’s also two YA novels told in alternating chapters. Half of the chapters are about Darcy Patel. At the story’s start Darcy has just graduated from high school, sold her novel Afterworlds to a major publisher (along with its yet-unwritten sequel) for six figures, and is moving to New York City to revise her manuscript and write her next book. The other half of the book is Darcy’s novel itself, a fast-paced supernatural tale as told by Lizzie, a ordinary teenager girl until she survives a terrorist attack. In the midst of the terrible slaughter around her, Lizzie wills herself to the afterworld, the alternate plane of existence for ghosts and their psychopomps spirit guides. In doing so, Lizzie becomes a psychopomp herself and her life floods with ghosts and with dangers she never imagined.

Darcy navigates New York publishing while Lizzie begins a romance with Yamaraj, a handsome fellow psychopomp. Lizzie meets Mindy, the ghost of her mother’s murdered childhood friend, who has lived in her mother’s closet for decades. Darcy falls in love for the first time with Imogen, a YA writer who is full of secrets. Lizzie sets out to solve Mindy’s murder while learning about her new powers and wrestling with the moral questions of the new realm she’s uncovered. Darcy struggles to polish her novel, find her place among her literary heroes, and have her first relationship.

This is an engaging book for YA fans. Both teenage heroines are struggling with the transition to adulthood in extraordinary circumstances. Lizzie has a host of otherworldly issues to contend with, along with trauma and survivor’s guilt. Darcy has had all her dreams come true thanks to incredible success as a first-time novelist, but wrestles with imposter syndrome, questions of cultural appropriation in fiction, and the sudden freedom of adulthood.

The weakness point for both stories, at least for me, were the romances. Yamaraj is, like plenty of teenage heart throbs, too perfect to be really interesting, though the novel ultimately addresses this smartly. Imogen is more complex but Darcy’s apparent sudden sexual awakening wasn’t fleshed out. Prior to Imogen, it seemed Darcy had never any romantic or sexual interest in anyone, though she wrote a novel with a significant romance. On the one hand, it was refreshing that Darcy was relatively unconcerned with her sexual orientation or labeling herself. She struggles to tell her family about her girlfriend, even knowing that it won’t be a big deal, but there’s no tortured coming out story. Many of the challenges in the relationship are challenges in any first relationship. On the other, it seemed like Darcy was written to be vaguely on the asexual/demisexual spectrum without actually acknowledging this. Darcy, at eighteen, had never thought about her sexuality before, and I’m tired of female characters who had no sexual fantasies or desires until the right love interest comes along. It distracted me from the beginning of the Imogen/Darcy relationship, though that relationship did evolve in interesting ways.

All and all this was a fun read. I’d recommend to young adults looking for a different take on paranormal romance, for aspiring writers (the six-figure book deal is an excellent fantasy), for YA fans, and for readers looking for unique read.

Islay reviews Raven Mask by Winter Pennington

Raven Mask is the second in Winter Pennington’s series featuring the adventures of ‘preternatural investigator’ werewolf Kassandra Lyall, and I would most certainly recommend reading the first before the second as Raven Mask picks up fairly seamlessly from where the first novel leaves off. It is, however, an enjoyable romp told with flare and good humour and scattered with a decent number of extremely intense sex scenes which should keep any lover of Sapphic fantasy fiction very happy.

The plot is fast-paced and intriguing, and if it occasionally feels somewhat disjointed it’s more than made up for by their being a juicy love scene within the first couple of chapters to wet the reader’s appetite for what’s to come. This is the first of several love scenes between Kassandra and her vampire lover Lenorre scattered throughout the novel, which all manage to be both erotic and entertaining without overcrowding the plot. It’s somewhat unfortunate that here in Britain ‘Lenore’ is actually the name of a leading brand of fabric softener and couldn’t be less vampiric sounding if it tried – but I’m prepared to forgive Pennington that given that this book was clearly written with an American audience in mind.

Kassandra Lyall is a likeable, sympathetic and frequently funny heroine, and Pennington sets her up well amongst a brace of other quirky, intriguing characters – I developed a particular soft spot for the Beta werewolf Rosalin. The cast of vampires, however, feel a little over-egged: I for one think we’ve really moved past the point where blood suckers must all be faux-Gothic cartoons who dress like bastardised Victorians and speaks with British accents. We now live in the age of True Blood and Being Human, after all, and those shows have been so successful at re-popularising vampire fiction because they resist the Anne Rice style of vamp that permeated 80s and 90s cult lit. Pennington might be a little more successful at getting me to take her vampire characters seriously if she wrote them in a style that didn’t feel so dated.

However, I can’t be completely sure she isn’t doing so with a wink and a nod anyway – her tone is characterised by a slightly tongue-in-cheek mischievousness which shows most clearly in Kassandra’s wry wit and commentary on outrageousness of the situations she gets into. Pennington can just about get away with pantomime vampires where a less skilled author wouldn’t, because her narrative voice is so appealing.

Kassandra does occasionally stray into feeling like an insert for Pennington herself, however. Not only is she a gutsy lesbian werewolf, but a Celtic pagan witch with a particular affinity with ravens. This would be fine if the fact of her being a witch had any bearing on the plot whatsoever – but it doesn’t, and left me wondering why such a detail kept being shoe-horned in. Being a Hellenic polytheist myself I wont criticise the respectful inclusion of a Pagan belief system – neo-Pagans are sorely lacking representation in any kind of popular literature – but it does feel somewhat convenient that Pennington’s blurb mentions that she too is a pagan on a Celtic path with a great fondness for ravens and crows. No author separates themselves from their characters entirely, nor should they have to, but the tongue-in-cheek style which allows Pennington to get away with her vampires is missing from her descriptions of Kassandra’s spirituality and that leaves those sections feeling a little forced and out of place. She doesn’t need to be a witch on top of everything else – there’s no benefit to the narrative – and as such Kassandra being a Celtic pagan feels self-indulgent and jars the reader somewhat.

That being said Kassandra remains an appealing narrator and Raven Mask an entertaining novel – highly recommended to anyone looking for a sexy, funny, escapist bit of fluff to bury themselves in for an afternoon.