The Afterward

by E.K. Johnston

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Publisher: Dutton Books
Copyright: February 2019
Printing: 2020
ISBN: 0-7352-3190-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 339

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The Afterward is a standalone young adult high fantasy with a substantial romance component. The title is not misspelled.

Sir Erris and her six companions, matching the number of the new gods, were successful in their quest for the godsgem. They defeated the Old God and destroyed Him forever, freeing King Dorrenta from his ensorcellment, and returned in triumph to Cadrium to live happily ever after. Or so the story goes.

Sir Erris and three of the companions are knights. Another companion is the best mage in the kingdom. Kalanthe Ironheart, who distracted the Old God at a critical moment and allowed Sir Erris to strike, is only an apprentice due to her age, but surely will become a great knight. And then there is Olsa Rhetsdaughter, the lowborn thief, now somewhat mockingly called Thief of the Realm for all the good that does her. The reward was enough for her to buy her freedom from the Thief's Court. It was not enough to pay for food after that, or enough for her to change her profession, and the Thief's Court no longer has any incentive to give her easy (or survivable) assignments.

Kalanthe is in a considerably better position, but she still needs a good marriage. Her reward paid off half of her debt, which broadens her options, but she's still a debt-knight, liable for the full cost of her training once she reaches the age of nineteen. She's mostly made her peace with the decisions she made given her family's modest means, but marriages of that type are usually for heirs, and Kalanthe is not looking forward to bearing a child. Or, for that matter, sleeping with a man.

Olsa and Kalanthe fell in love during the Quest. Given Kalanthe's debt and the way it must be paid, and her iron-willed determination to keep vows, neither of them expected their relationship to survive the end of the Quest. Both of them wish that it had.

The hook is that this novel picks up after the epic fantasy quest is over and everyone went home. This is not an entirely correct synopsis; chapters of The Afterward alternate between "After" and "Before" (and one chapter delightfully titled "More or less the exact moment of"), and by the end of the book we get much of the story of the Quest. It's not told from the perspective of the lead heroes, though; it's told by following Kalanthe and Olsa, who would be firmly relegated to supporting characters in a typical high fantasy. And it's largely told through the lens of their romance.

This is not the best fantasy novel I've read, but I had a fun time with it. I am now curious about the intended audience and marketing, though. It was published by a YA imprint, and both the ages of the main characters and the general theme of late teenagers trying to chart a course in an adult world match that niche. But it's also clearly intended for readers who have read enough epic fantasy quests that they will both be amused by the homage and not care that the story elides a lot of the typical details. Anyone who read David Eddings at an impressionable age will enjoy the way Johnston pokes gentle fun at The Belgariad (this book is dedicated to David and Leigh Eddings), but surely the typical reader of YA fantasy these days isn't also reading Eddings. I'm therefore not quite sure who this book was for, but apparently that group included me.

Johnston thankfully is not on board with the less savory parts of Eddings's writing, as you might have guessed from the sapphic romance. There is no obnoxious gender essentialism here, although there do appear to be gender roles that I never quite figured out. Knights are referred to as sir, but all of the knights in this story are women. Men still seem to run a lot of things (kingdoms, estates, mage colleges), but apart from the mage, everyone on the Quest was female, and there seems to be an expectation that women go out into the world and have adventures while men stay home. I'm not sure if there was an underlying system that escaped me, or if Johnston just mixed things up for the hell of it. (If the latter, I approve.)

This book does suffer a bit from addressing some current-day representation issues without managing to fold them naturally into the story or setting. One of the Quest knights is transgender, something that's revealed in a awkward couple of paragraphs and then never mentioned again. Two of the characters have a painfully earnest conversation about the word "bisexual," complete with a strained attempt at in-universe etymology. Racial diversity (Olsa is black, and Kalanthe is also not white) seemed to be handled a bit better, although I am not the reader to notice if the discussions of hair maintenance were similarly awkward. This is way better than no representation and default-white characters, to be clear, but it felt a bit shoehorned in at times and could have used some more polish.

These are quibbles, though. Olsa was the heart of the book for me, and is exactly the sort of character I like to read about. Kalanthe is pure stubborn paladin, but I liked her more and more as the story continued. She provides a good counterbalance to Olsa's natural chaos. I do wish Olsa had more opportunities to show her own competence (she's not a very good thief, she's just the thief that Sir Erris happened to know), but the climax of the story was satisfying. My main grumble is that I badly wanted to dwell on the happily-ever-after for at least another chapter, ideally two. Johnston was done with the story before I was.

The writing was serviceable but not great and there are some bits that I don't think would stand up to a strong poke, but the characters carried the story for me. Recommended if you'd like some sapphic romance and lightweight class analysis complicating your Eddings-style quest fantasy.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2023-12-28

Last modified and spun 2023-12-29