Afterworlds - Scott Westerfeld

(I got an ARC courtesy of NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.)

Pretty interesting premise, but in the end I found the execution wanting, and the stories not that interesting, unfortunately.

I really liked the beginning: Darcy having to navigate her way in New York, meeting published authors as well as other "debs" like her (people whose book was to be published in the upcoming months), having to take editing and rewriting tasks into account... The first pages of Lizzie's story were gripping, too, and I appreciated how we're shown the final version of Darcy's book, running parallel to her own editing of the first draft, with all the pitfalls that were in it (exposition chapters, huge info-dumps...) and were then removed. As someone who likes writing, too,
I couldn't help but find this comment about the YA scene and authors' jobs quite interesting. The book is full of little allusions to similar themes: Darcy obviously wrote her novel during NaNoWriMo 2012, the Darcy/Lizzie hint at "Pride and Prejudice" is totally acknowledged, the authors debate about what's more important (plot? characters? conflict? setting?), and so on.

However, a lot of aspects in "Afterworlds" were problematic.

For starters, I'm not sure YA readers not specifically interested in writing would "get it". Clearly it's going to be a hit-or-miss here.

Also, the characters weren't that impressive. Those from Darcy's novel were rather bland in my opinion, and what I may deem "typical YA cut-outs". Yamaraj: the mysterious love interest without much of a personality. Jamie: the best friend who, in Darcy's copy-editor's own terms, "has car, lives with father", and not much more. In fact, Darcy's novel would have deserved to stand on its own, because it would've allowed the author to properly develop its world and characters, and make it the gripping idea it seemed to be in the beginning. (I'm still convinced that opening scene in the airport is a proper attention-catcher.)

Darcy was definitely annoying: totally immature, without any sense of responsibility (she missed so many deadlines, such as the ones for college applications, lease renewal, and her writing was two inches from going the same way), jumping to conclusions, thinking in terms of the world revolving around her... Defects I would've happily forgiven, if she had learnt from them, but she didn't. And in the end? In the end, Little Miss Lucky still got lucky, still landed an astonishing deal, still managed to waltz out of problems without that much of a hitch. All things that are potential insults at actual writers, the large majority that doesn't land an agent after just a few weeks of querying, nor a $300,000 book deal for his/her first novel. I'm all in favour of selling dreams, but those were too much a matter of dumb luck, not of work and personal improvement. I didn't root for Darcy at all. (I was also rather miffed at her plot taking a "let's focus on the love relationship" turn. There were so many other things it could have focused on...)

Mostly, I felt that this book had great potential in being a pretty good parody, but couldn't make up its mind about being one or not. Why a parody? For all the jabs at YA novels, at their shortcomings, elements I tend to notice as well when I read such stories. "Afterworlds" could be an excellent critique of the current market—a market I personally find saturated with cookie-cutter themes and plots (the same old kind of love interest, the same trend of characters whose questionable decisions put them in the too-stupid-to-live category...). Unfortunately, the way it is, it fell into the exact pit traps it (unconsciously or not?) denounced.

A note as well about a few questions raised throughout Darcy's narrative. There was an interesting discussion about culture appropriation, and how Darcy's use of Yama, an actual deity from Hindu mythology, amounted to erasing Hinduism, or at least part of it, from her world, by not openly acknowledging him as part of this religion. I found this point very valid. And yet, at the same time, Darcy herself represents a removal of cultural heritage: she's of Indian origin, but apart from her surname and physical description, she's the typical "white protagonist". (She's not religious, her family isn't particularly religious either, they all behave like standard Americans in novels... In other words: why make her from a different culture, if it's not to use it? Was it just for the sake of having a non-white protagonist... or, on the contrary, to point at how many other novels appropriate various cultures, only to "whiten" them?)

The underlying critique is definitely present, and something I can't help thinking about, wondering if it was on purpose, or totally accidental. I don't know how to take this novel, except with a grain of salt. I'm giving it 2 stars because of the parody it could be, one that made me snicker and nod my head in acknowledgment. But story-wise, I think it should either have been made a stronger read (as it was, it became boring rather quickly), or have gone all the way as a more obvious means of denouncing the many problems going rampant in the YA publishing industry. If it's one, I'm not sure that many people will realise it, unfortunately (and especially not younger readers—not because they're young, just because they may not have the necessary reading background to see the critique I mentioned).