by Scott Westerfeld
Teenage novelist Darcy Patel has hit it big: the contract for her debut novel, Afterworlds, sold for an incredible amount of money, allowing her to move to New York City and live out her dream in “YA Heaven” – hanging out with other authors, preparing her book and working on its sequel, and falling in love for the first time. As Darcy struggles to make her novel conform to her publisher’s requests, her character Lizzie survives a terrorist attack and gains the power to communicate with the dead and cross into their world. As Lizzie’s paranormal murder-mystery/romance unfolds, creator Darcy goes through her own transformation into a “real” writer.
Two novels for the price of one! Seems like a pretty good deal, right? In the hands of a lesser writer, this story-within-a-story would get muddled, but Scott Westerfeld easily guides the reader between the two worlds. Each story supports the other; when Darcy frets over the latest round of edits requested by her publisher, the reader understands her concerns because they are intimately familiar with her novel. Likewise, as Afterworlds protagonist Lizzie struggles to cope with family secrets and her first love, the reader knows that Darcy is drawing on her own experiences in New York City to flesh out her character.
Anyone who has ever aspired to be an author published by the Big Six will be a little envious of Darcy, who catches lucky break after lucky break. She finished her novel in a month-long challenge (NaNoWriMo, although I don’t remember if the website is ever named) and almost immediately it was sold for such a high price that she will be able to live in New York City on her advance money. That’s insane. On her first day in town, she meets one of her writer heroes and meets the woman who will soon be her girlfriend and muse. As she learns the ins and outs of the publishing world, the reader is right beside her to experience meeting literary idols, giving talks about the book in front of an audience of hundreds, and the nerve-wracking wait to see if anyone will buy the novel when it finally hits the shelves.
And if the reader wants a supernatural adventure, Lizzie’s story will captivate. When terrorists attack the Dallas airport, Lizzie is the only survivor. During the traumatic event, she crosses into the land of the dead, where she meets the mysterious Yamaraj. Based on a Hindu god – a fact that Darcy feels guilty about since she isn’t exactly a practicing Hindu – Yamaraj introduces Lizzie to the world of the dead, for now Lizzie is a psychopomp, one of the rare individuals who can communicate with ghosts. Despite the ludicrious name, psychopomps can be very powerful, and when a malevolent one threatens to hurt Lizzie’s friends she must rise to the challenge.
There was one thing that disappointed me. Some of the minor characters are poorly developed in Lizzie’s story, a fact even noted at one point by Darcy. We know that Lizzie has a best friend, Jamie, but virtually nothing is known about this girl except that she’s always willing to listen to Lizzie’s problem. She’s just a sympathetic ear that also owns a car. An agent assigned to watch over Lizzie after the terrorist attack also gets short shrift in development. Even Yamaraj’s personality is sketched a bit thin. But hey, it’s a first novel. Darcy will do better next time! It’s still a lot better than a lot of first-time YA novels I’ve read, and when combined with Darcy’s personal adventures it’s a fascinating peek into the writer’s world.
— review by Suzi