The Afterward is a win for fantasy-lovers everywhere


E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward is a win not just for YA fantasy readers tired of trilogies, but for fans of the genre in general.

The Afterward probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. Aren’t there supposed to be happy endings, that’s it, and if you choose to follow up, it has to be dark and dreary or present a new, immediate threat? No, says author E.K. Johnston, before proceeding to weave past and present, different perspectives, and more together for one quick ride that’s self-aware without being mocking.

Kalanthe and Olsa met as part of a journey to save the kingdom; naturally, they fell in love. But as the title itself asks, the fallout is what’s really important here, and though the two spend most of the present in the book apart, they offer equally fascinating looks at the kingdom and clever plots that do end up coming back together in the end. (It’s a standalone! No cliffhangers here, and what a relief that is.)

That’s because Johnston knows her medium well. There’s a reason her Star Wars: Ahsoka became beloved, and it’s apparent here, too: she knows what the usual constraints are, and there are winking nods to fantasy fans all over. In fact, the original story that brought Kalanthe and Olsa together reads like the plot of something akin to the first Final Fantasy, only with one gem instead of four, because this isn’t an RPG and doesn’t last 20+ hours.

That, too, is actually refreshing. Unlike another recent release, Crown of Feathers, The Afterward gives you about as much as you need to know, then proceeds to tell the story. This doesn’t mean it’s sparse — among other things, Johnston interrogates the idea of who gets to be a knight and what factors go into that even as Kalanthe approaches knighthood — but it does mean that the book moves right along. Sometimes, it might be a little too quick, but that’s a minor complaint. Sometimes, all you want is the fast fantasy, not having to slog through a few extra hundred pages.

The tagline promises this as “romantic high fantasy,” though, so what about the romance? Well, Olsa and Kalanthe not only talk about their sexualities openly, but actually have different sexualities and needs that they have to learn to balance both in past and present. That might seem like it’s practically mundane, but giving a name to it is beneficial for YA readers who might be questioning themselves in their day to day lives. (It does bring up one possible question, but at the risk of spoiling it, this writer will simply say that it’s an open question that encourages research.) Nor are the two of them always completely in sync with each other.

It ultimately feels like a relatively healthy relationship, with both parties getting advice from older characters, who also represent different aspects of the LGBTQ community.

Now, as it may already be clear, the backstory that informs the present of The Afterward is fairly standard. The chapters set during that time period might be a touch boring for readers who aren’t focusing on the character development but rather on the plot, and that’s a fair criticism.

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All in all, though, The Afterward is meant for those who love their fantasy conventions, but don’t mind a lot of deviation.