Some of you may be familiar with Scott Westerfeld from his delightfully disturbing dystopia series Uglies. In Uglies, we saw that Westerfeld has the potential to get very dark in the doom and gloom of a futuristic totalitarian government kind of way. Westerfeld’s latest book, Afterworlds, goes down a completely different path, but may be equally entertaining to dark-minded readers.
I don’t even know how I would classify the genre of this book. There are really two different stories going on in alternating chapters: a simple realistic coming of age story of Darcy Patel—a teenage writer struggling to navigate the adult worlds of New York City, publishing, and true love; and then you have the story of Darcy’s novel about a teenage girl named Lizzie who becomes a psychopomp and falls in love with a death god as she struggles to come to terms with her new relationship with the dead. It’s really in this second story that the darker elements come into play.
Lizzie’s story combines a number of different genres, from suspenseful thriller to horror, murder mystery, and romance. It starts off a little Sixth Sense-ish with Lizzie slowly realizing she can see dead people after willing herself into a death-like state during a terrorist attack and encountering the smoldering Hindu death god, Yama, in the ghostly plane of the airport. The story soon becomes a murder mystery when Lizzie discovers the ghost of a little girl living in her mother’s house who had been kidnapped but was later found buried in her own backyard. As Lizzie investigates further into Mindy’s death and her own new psychopomp powers, there are some truly horror-movie-worthy moments—from mysterious black liquid oozing across the floor and the sound of fingernails on the floorboards coming for Lizzie in the middle of the night, to a gaggle of ghostly girls who mournfully linger in the front yard of the man who killed them and stare silently at Lizzie whenever she approaches them.
And then you have the paranormal romance aspect. Who needs a seductive vampire, misunderstood zombie, or Unseelie fae when you could fall in love with the god of death himself? Okay, to be fair, he’s not really a god in this story, but he is based off of Yama, the God of Death, in Vedic mythology. How exciting is it to see some diversity being brought into the mythologies being featured in paranormal YA? As much as I love my Celtic fae and Greek gods, it’s always fun to learn about something new. In Afterworlds, Yama is one of the first humans to have crossed over to the afterworld while still alive. He became a guide for spirits and rules at least a portion of the underworld from a magnificent palace in a city constructed from the memories of long-departed buildings. Yama mentors Lizzie, teaching her how to navigate the afterworld and use her powers for good, but they share a bond that is a bit more than teacher-student…
I really enjoyed the concept of ghosts in this novel. Westerfeld’s ghosts seem to mostly be made up of the memories of the people left who still remember them. Thus ghosts begin to fade as the number of people who knew them slowly dwindle. Lizzie and Yama seem to be fighting a losing battle of trying to keep ghosts alive in their memories. Yama in particular has made it his special mission to learn the name of each spirit he guides so that they won’t disappear. But if he doesn’t know anything about their personalities, do they even have personalities? And if not, is it worth it to continue existing? Anyway, the whole concept gave me flashbacks to back when I used to play with my Ouija board as a kid and had some very interesting conversations with beings who identified themselves as “memories”…
Overall, Afterworlds is surprisingly light-hearted and fun for a book that features the ghosts of murdered girls and a death god, but it’s a great read for anyone looking for something a little bit outside of the typical gothic genres without leaving them entirely behind. Personally, I found both stories in the book fascinating because I loved learning about the publishing industry through Darcy’s side. However, if you’re in it for the ghosts, you might find it tedious to constantly interrupt Lizzie’s story with Darcy’s trials of adulthood.
Definitely give this book a try, and let me know what you think in the comments!