2 out of 4 stars
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You’ll get a persistent sense of contradiction while reading David James Jensen’s Afterworld. While written for readers aged 10 to 18, the book’s protagonists are not children or teens but two married couples. There’s a magic system centered around “etheric energy” as well as some abstract concepts that the target audience may find difficult to grasp, yet the simplicity of the writing is better suited for middle grade and young adult readers. Much like digging into a supposedly savory dish and finding it sweet, reading Afterworld is one bewildering experience.
Jensen throws readers right in the thick of the action. Siblings Anson and Amara die in a car accident alongside their spouses, Zora and Reeve. All find themselves in different corners of the Afterworld, a “dream version of Earth” where the souls of the dead go. Two Sages — souls who attained the highest stage of enlightenment — separately take Anson and Amara under their wings, setting the siblings on a collision course that will determine the fate of the Afterworld. Meanwhile, Zora finds herself amongst the Adepts, more evolved souls who possess enhanced abilities. Reeve becomes a full-fledged Reaper, forced to hunt other souls to avoid the ire of a Minion, who, in turn, serves the story’s ultimate villain: the Archfiend. A war is coming, and the four who’d been so close in life find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict in this world beyond death.
There’s an inventiveness in Jensen’s take on the afterlife. But though the world is vivid enough, many elements — the power structures, the pecking order of souls, etc. — are so abruptly introduced that the danger of information overload lurks around every page. In the first few chapters, we witness one skirmish after another, featuring four major types of souls who wield some sort of weapon (e.g., endo-guns and astral shields) or display some type of superpower (e.g., teleportation and hypnosis). Jensen also relies too much on similes and comparisons to flesh out the setting, leading to bland descriptions like Roman/Greek/Scandinavian-style architecture, Eastern-looking garments, or Ottoman-type furniture. Otherwise, we learn how long, deep, high, or wide a certain thing is.
Jensen dabbles in scriptwriting, which perhaps explains why the exposition often seems like instructions for set construction or why the characters’ actions appear like stage directions. Jensen also falls back to the same phrases time and again, where souls “run at supernatural speed” or victims “cry/scream out in pain.” The repetitive vocabulary diminishes the impact of what could have been intense battle sequences or harrowing death scenes.
Afterworld is a plot-driven story that unfolds at an efficient pace. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of character development, as we get little to no information about the many souls we meet. Several are “fodder characters,” or ones who exist simply to die or disappear so the plot can move along. There’s no room for the story to breathe, with many significant moments feeling so rushed or contrived. It’s just hard to buy into a romance founded on a few short conversations, or the personality change of a supposedly tortured character when their suffering was barely shown.
I’d rate Afterworld 2 out of 4 stars. I didn’t enjoy the book, but I won’t write it off just yet. While exasperating at times, there’s a spark of creativity at its core that can perhaps lead to something great. There’s a lot of work to do, however, starting off with cleaning up the editing errors strewn all over the text. Fantasy readers will appreciate the book’s imaginative twist on the afterlife, and though intended for a younger crowd, I think adult readers will find the characters and situations more relatable.
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