EK Johnston is one of my favorite authors, so maybe I’m biased, but The Afterward might be my favorite book of all time. I can safely say that because I’ve only had the ARC since August, and I’ve already read it twice.
I feel like that’s all I really need to say, but I can’t shut up about this book, so I’m going to go ahead and say a lot more things.
EK Johnston is an absolute master of character. Her people feel like people, her dialogue reads like people actually might say it, her voices are distinct and diverse and real. Olsa and Kalanthe make my heart sing. Johnston captures their viscerally different backgrounds and experiences and makes you love both of them in a matter of pages. The book is divided into alternating chapters of After and Before, and the After sections show just how much these girls both care about each other despite both of them being reluctant to actually admit to caring so much, and the Before sections show their slow-and-sudden fall into love gorgeously, with hints and smiles and then, you know, saving each others’ lives. I love these two so much.
The worldbuilding is seamless and beautiful. There’s nothing I don’t love about this–the expansive geography, the mage city and their magic of will and intent, the sprawling capital you love to hate. It feels like every generic fantasy world, but there’s something special about it; possibly it’s nostalgia, but possibly it’s something else: the obvious love and care that went into building the world. Honestly, that really goes for the whole book. Johnston’s joy in writing this comes through in every word, and it makes the reading of it even more enjoyable, to share in a bit of that joy.
The dual narrative–or, quadruple narrative?–seems like it should be confusing, but it works so well. Kalanthe and Olsa’s voices and tones are distinct enough that I never once got lost in whose chapters I was reading, and though I ached for more of the Before story, from both our narrators, the After story–the main focus of the book, as is obvious from the title–was just stunning. Because Johnston is right–no one ever does talk about what happens after the Quest. And her exploration of it is beautiful and rough and aching and lovely. How does one go back to normal after saving the world? Olsa and Kalanthe do a brilliant job of explaining how you don’t.
You don’t have to know anything about David and Leigh Eddings to get this book. There’s a lot of hype about how it’s inspired by the Elenium, but it’s totally okay to go into this one blind–it will still be a perfect, beautiful book. It will be an actually epic fantasy with knights and Quests and Magical Thingamabobs, with characters of honor who are strong and vulnerable and just…Good. They are so Good. It will be a story about love and life. It will be a brilliant exploration of what happens after. But if you have read Eddings…then you notice all the little easter eggs hidden in the character names and events of Before, and it’s like the book is giving you a hug and saying, “I loved them too.”
And I can’t thank EK Johnston enough for that. I can’t thank her enough for the feminist, queer retelling of my childhood favorites. For the heartwarming, heartwrenching, achingly lovely story that she poured into the Afterward, seemingly so that I, personally, would melt into a puddle of emotions and reread this book several times before it’s actually published. Because it’s my favorite.
And, simply speaking, I love it.
The Afterward comes out on February 19th, but you can pre-order it online or call the store to reserve a copy (and you’ll get 10% off just for pre-ordering)!