Elinor reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


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.

Amanda Clay reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


This book is all about the flipside.

Two interlocking stories, Darcy Patel, YA wunderkind, whose NaNoWriMo romance has catapulted her into a whole new world, and her creation, Elizabeth Scofield, whose brush with death gave her access to the afterlife and a whole new purpose for her existence.  Told in alternating chapters, the young women’s stories unfold.  The navigation of the new, the weight of responsibility both to people and circumstances, the shock of self-discovery, and the risks of new romance. Darcy’s tale is as real as Elizabeth’s is supernatural, but both girls share more than they might realize.

Lizzie’s story is Darcy’s, the book she wrote and sold for a staggering sum.  Launched by this success, Darcy defers her college acceptance and moves to New York, throwing herself into the literary life.  It’s a dizzy ascent at first, meeting idols as equals, learning how to live and work entirely on her own.  But Darcy has luck as well as skill, and the people she meets are good and helpful, some even better than others. Fellow debut author Imogen Gray is friendly at first, but the two are drawn together and Darcy finds herself caught up in a first love she never even knew she wanted. But romance with a fellow writer has hidden challenges, especially when you both have secrets.

Lizzie’s life is much less serene.  When terrorists attack the airport lounge where she waits for a flight, Lizzie survives only by magic, phasing into the Underworld, the middle land where ghosts roam, kept alive by the memories of the living. From a beautiful young man named Yamaraj, Lizzie learns she is a psychopomp, a living guide of the dead who can pass between worlds.  With this newfound knowledge, Lizzie determines to do good, avenging the deaths of murdered children, even as she navigates the powers and politics of this new realm and the lives within it.  Lizzie learns from Yamaraj, connecting with him on many levels, but their dedication and attraction may not be enough when their world is threatened with a killer of the dead.

As I said before, this book is all about the flipside. That’s what Lizzie calls the Underworld, and it’s the perfect metaphor for the story itself.  Darcy’s tale is delightful.  The brilliant, colorful world of the living, with love, friendship, money and a dreamy career won with hard work and genuine talent. There’s  vicarious living and wish fulfillment, tempered with enough struggle, enough sacrifice, to keep it from being saccharine and unrealistic.  Her romance with Imogen blooms and flourishes, and even their setbacks aren’t too upsetting. The book is also wonderfully meta, with lots of discussion about the ups and downs of writing YA novels, of the writing life, and of the difficulty making edits and revisions on the story we are currently reading.

Lizzie’s story, on the other hand, is the world of the dead: grey and flattened, chill and draining.  Perhaps it is simply down to my taste, but the “Afterworlds” within Afterworlds didn’t work as well. The story of Lizzie’s newfound supernatural life and romance is adequate but unremarkable. I never skimmed, but I was often impatient to get past it and back to Darcy’s story.  The romance with Yamaraj seemed like it was included because there’s supposed to be romances in stories like this. Unlike Darcy and Imogen, there wasn’t much chemistry.  Lizzie doesn’t think or feel about him in romantic ways, just gets with him occasionally to make out. The world building is fairly unique, based on Hindu mythology, and Lizzie’s quest to find the killer of her mother’s childhood friend is enough plot to move the story forward. Even the climactic showdown seemed like it was there because it was time to wrap things up.  It’s not a bad story, it’s just not as good as Darcy’s story.

Ultimately, this is a book I recommend. It’s not a challenging read, but it is enjoyable, and as Imogen herself says, who doesn’t need the occasional happy ending?

Trigger warnings: terrorism, gun violence, child murder

Audrey reviews Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld


It clocks in at literally just under 600 pages. It’s two books in one. It’s a heck of a new young adult experiment for Scott Westerfeld, whose previous YA series have done well. And they’ve all been very different–steampunk (Leviathan), dystopian (Uglies), and apocalyptic (Peeps), to name a few. (Also, he is married to Justine Larbalestier, which is neither here nor there, but her Magic or Madness trilogy is excellent.) “Afterworlds” is a doorstop of a book that takes on first love, the publishing world, the co-opting of cultures for the creation of art, the nature of ghosts, dreams, obligations, New York City, and a host of other things. It is, in a word rather than in a list, ambitious. And it mostly works. Which is great, because it’s a Commitment; I only picked it up because I was processing it for my library and noticed that one of the subject headings was Lesbians–Fiction.

Darcy’s barely a high school graduate, but back in the fall she gritted her teeth and committed herself to NaNoWriMo (seenanowrimo.org). She triumphed. The novel she completed is called “Afterworlds,” and not only has she sold it, she’s managed to get a two-book contract for an obscene amount of money. And she’s moved to New York to be a writer, to do the revisions of “Afterworlds,” and to come up with the elusive second novel she’s now contractually obligated to deliver.

Darcy’s protagonist is Lizzie, and no, Darcy doesn’t pick up on the Darcy-and-Lizzie thing until well after she’s completed the novel, and once it’s pointed out, it doesn’t really go anywhere; it’s just acknowledged for the Janeites. Darcy’s tale and Lizzie’s tale (that is, Darcy’s novel) are told in alternating chapters, so quite seriously, this is two full books. There’s the story of a young girl moving to New York City to test out the possibilities of what might be a charmed life, and the story of a young girl dealing with the challenges of her own new life in the aftermath of a horrible tragedy.

One of the great things about Darcy is that she has a little sister who’s smart and plucky. Another great thing about Darcy is that she’s clueless and doesn’t know it. She’s from a Hindu family, but has written a book about a white girl who survives a terrorist attack by slipping into the spirit world, becoming a spirit guide, and falling in love with a Hindu death god. There’s some good stuff going on in the book, but the leads are a bit vanilla. Darcy wanted her protagonist to be relatable, though, and she based the death god on a Bollywood actor she thought was hot. That’s her model for love. Until she moves to New York. Until she meets Imogen.

And then New York gives her an experience she hadn’t anticipated. Darcy and Imogen are both writers, both Word Girls who appreciate language and its nuances. Their relationship isn’t entirely transparent, though. Darcy has maybe skipped class once or twice. But Imogen has a past. Emotionally, Imogen is more complex than the people Darcy’s used to. From the beginning there’s a sense of something being off-kilter, and that sense only grows until things come to a head–I was disappointed with Westerfeld’s resolution here. There’s lots of attention given to how Darcy deals with the ending of Lizzie’s story, but that ending was fine. It’s the ending of Darcy’s story that disappoints. It feels as if Westerfeld lacked the conviction to carry through the momentum he built throughout an entire novel, because the original ending perhaps didn’t test well. Maybe it’s a meta-statement on publishing?

The genre story is riproaring and page-turning. The frame story offers a little wish-fulfillment peek into YA heaven, and a mostly lovely and restrained look at the amazingness of awakening feelings, and first love, and finally understanding what everyone else has been obsessing about for years. There’s no graphic sexual content, but lots of F-bombs, which is necessary to know if you’re a YA librarian. Nobody cares about murder (there’s some of that) or terrorism (yup), but is there sex (not described)? Bad language (all over the place)?

Where this book will find its readership is up for debate. Usually, the teenage girls (or “new adults”) to whom it seems to be marketed are lots more self-aware than Darcy. Her naivete may turn them off. Adults may find this to be wish fulfillment all around. Not only does Darcy fall into her publishing contract and a lovely apartment and her first relationship, she’s in an extremely accepting community. There’s only one uncomfortable moment, when she admits that she doesn’t want to go home and tell her parents she’s dating Imogen. Imogen has to point out that not everyone has it so easy, and “Not all of us make it, you know.” This is no one’s publishing story; maybe it’s no one’s coming-out story, either.

What’s the verdict? I loved the parts about the publishing world and the beginning (and pieces of the middle) of Lizzie’s story. But there’s a lot going on here. This wouldn’t be something to recommend to someone just looking for a good lesbian romance.

Danika reviews Polymorph by Scott Westerfeld


I debated whether or not to review this book at the Lesbrary. It’s definitely not a lesbian book, but it is queer, and since I have a policy of reviewing every book I read that could be posted here, I decided to go ahead. I found Polymorph in a crowded used bookstore while travelling, and picked it up because the idea of a person who changes their body completely at will was fascinating to me, especially since the back cover promised to play with gender. And the other factor was that this is by Scott Westerfeld! I’m pretty familiar with Westerfeld’s books, working in the kids’ section of a bookstore, but I’d never heard of this one. He usually writes teen books, that in my experience are entertaining, but fairly forgettable. It turns out that this is his first novel, written in 1997, and it diverges hugely from his now established genre. It’s adult sci fi, and it’s challenging and sexual and queer. Look at that front cover blurb! Billy Martin (then Poppy Z. Brite, known for his queer horror books)! And the back cover shows a blurb by Melissa Scott, author of one of the most well-known lesbian sci fi books, Trouble and her Friends! This is not the sort of company Westerfeld’s books share now.

Needless to say, I was very curious picking up this book. And as I started it, I was immediately hooked. Our main character, often (but not always) known as Lee, calls themselves a “polymorph”, because they can change their body at will, though not without a huge amount of effort. Lee spends most of their time trying on different faces and hitting the clubs, studying anatomy texts and club goers to perfect striking, distinct bodies. Around this depiction of Lee everyday life, Westerfeld builds up an interesting view of the near future. In fact, because this is written in 90s, the future it depicts would be about now. It has a cyberpunk feel, with technology and the internet constantly a presence in the background of the novel (reminding me of Cory Doctorow’s books). I loved Westerfeld’s depiction of the future, which felt much more thought-out than his Uglies series. It’s a little bit odd, because most of it still seems possible for the near future, but it also has a 90s feel to it, a slightly dated future world.

But the aspect that drew me to Polymorph and captured my attention so thoroughly at the beginning of the book was the queer nature of being a polymorph. Queer in both the gender/sexuality sense, and also in the theory sense. Lee has no sense of permanent identity. They are just as comfortable in a “male” body as a “female” one, and also changes race throughout the book, noting how this aspect changes how they are treated. In a way, it’s a critique of racism, but the casualness of putting on another race made me hesitant to see how it would be handled throughout the novel. (Small spoiler: it’s not really addressed, but Lee was born Dominican and grew up as this identity until they began to change their body, in their teens.) Lee also mentions sleeping with men and women, gay and straight in the past. In fact, near the beginning of the book, Lee goes to a lesbian bar that they regularly frequent.

As I’ve mentioned, this was really promising for the beginning of the novel. Unfortunately, though the premise of the book is extremely queer, Westerfeld doesn’t seem to be able to follow through on it. You may have already noticed the binaries in Lee listing their lovers as men or women, gay or straight. Although bisexuality is mentioned once (the club has a “bi-night”), that sort of binary still seems to be the established norm. And though Lee is this person with no connection to a certain body, sex, or gender, there’s still quite a lot of transphobia mentioned. Lee sees “transvestites” in the street and notes that they are all “really” men. It’s also interesting that there is a scene, where Lee is changing their body from one with a vagina to one with a penis (which Lee does every time they want to change gendered bodies, though it’s apparently the most difficult thing to change), and pronouns change from she to he as soon as Lee forms a penis.

[Spoilers follow]

The scene that really solidified Westerfeld’s inability to realize this queer premise, though, is when Lee encounters another polymorph. This take place at the lesbian club, and Lee doesn’t realize that the other person is a polymorph at first. They begin to fool around, and eventually Lee realizes, because Lee notices that this person has an essential essence different from themselves, which is that this person was born male. Because apparently even polymorphs, who have no “home” body and switch genitals, gendered characteristics, etc, constantly, still are really either men or women. And then Lee discovers that this person has come into a lesbian club with a penis, and it is appalled, because “this is not a place for pricks“. In fact, Westerfeld somehow manages to write a book about someone who changes gendered bodies at will without acknowledging the existence of trans people. And this is in addition to some questionable depictions of race. There is a Japanese, deaf character in the book, but there’s also a scene of Lee pitying him for being deaf, though Sam is extremely wealthy and seems pretty satisfied with his life.

Perhaps more damning than the offensiveness of certain aspects in Polymorph is the plot. I was completely engrossed in Lee’s everyday life, but once it reached the actual plot of the book, I lost interest. Lee discovers another polymorph, but he’s a monster. (I say “he” because Bonito seems to prefer it, and Lee insists he’s a “man at heart”.) Lee tries to track him down, with  a new boyfriend and his hacking friend, and hopefully prevent him from doing something heinous and also meet more polymorphs. Bonito is such a flat, evil-for-the-sake-of-it character (though with a little contemplation for how he could have ended up that way) that I found any part of his story boring. I prefer my villains complex, even sympathetic. Although dramatic, it wasn’t particularly interesting, and I was particularly disappointed with it ending with Lee getting raped (in the most horrifying, consuming way possible).

I’m glad I read Polymorph, because the first 50 pages or so were worth it, but the rest was disappointing, mostly because I feel like Westerfeld has this great idea, but his own cissexist worldview didn’t allow him to fully imagine it.