Book review: The Afterward by E.K Johnston

Title: The Afterward by E.K Johnston

Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers

Publication date: 19 February 2019

Genre: High fantasy| Young Adult

Page extent: 352 pages

Goodreads blurb: It has been a year since the mysterious godsgem cured Cadrium’s king and ushered in what promised to be a new golden age. The heroes who brought the gem home are renowned in story and song, but for two fellows on the quest, peace and prosperity do not come easily. 

Apprentice Knight Kalanthe Ironheart wasn’t meant for heroism this early in life, and while she has no intention of giving up the notoriety she has earned, her reputation does not pay her bills. With time running out, Kalanthe may be forced to betray not her kingdom or her friends, but her own heart as she seeks a stable future for herself and those she loves.

Olsa Rhetsdaughter was never meant for heroism at all. Beggar, pick pocket, thief, she lived hand to mouth on the city streets until fortune–or fate–pulled her into Kalanthe’s orbit. And now she’s quite reluctant to leave it. Even more alarmingly, her fame has made her recognizable, which makes her profession difficult, and a choice between poverty and the noose isn’t much of a choice at all.

Both girls think their paths are laid out, but the godsgem isn’t quite done with them and that new golden age isn’t a sure thing yet. 

In a tale both sweepingly epic and intensely personal, Kalanthe and Olsa fight to maintain their newfound independence and to find their way back to each other.

This was my first EK Johnston book after trying one of her others a few years back and not really vibing it – and I am so glad I decided to go back to her! The Afterward is just a beautifully calm and relaxing high fantasy, set after ‘The Quest’ has happened and looking at what happens to the characters in the aftermath. 

The Afterward follows a group of knights who have just saved the kingdom, using the godsgem, a powerful stone created by the New Gods to destroy the evil Old God bent on destroying the world. But what happens after the quest is over? Kalanthe, apprentice knight, has to go back to her studies so she can finish qualifying as a knight. But, as the daughter of a poorer family, Kalanthe must pay the debts for her knight training by marrying a noble who will agree to pay off her debts in exchange (usually) for children. But Kalanthe is torn. Though one of the most honest and true knights, extremely bound to the honour of knighthood and hence the vows she made to pay her debts, Kalanthe fell in love on the quest. Enter Olsa, a street thief who joined the quest to help find the godsgem. Kalanthe is torn between her feelings for Olsa and her honour, and in this time of confusion and struggle, a noble offers her his hand in marriage.

Olsa is a thief, one of the best in the city of Cadria, someone who never expected to go on a quest with knights. And though the success of the quest allowed her to pay of her own debts to the local thieves guild, she doesn’t know what else to do. With no skills, no home, and no family to go to, she returns to living on the street and thievery. Olsa takes on more and more dangerous tasks for the guild, and is arrested regularly, knowing she’ll be pardoned due to her service to the realm during the quest. As Olsa struggles to find her place, Mage Ladros, fellow companion on the Quest, comes to her with a new journey that she hopes will give her purpose.

The Afterward follows Olsa, Kalanthe and the other Knights as they fall into life after saving the world. The story switches between ‘Before’, where the moments before the Old God was destroyed play out, and ‘After’, where we see the characters settling into their new lives. With the action very much not the main focus of the book, it makes for a very different and unusual high fantasy novel, and one which I really enjoyed. I find most high fantasies urgent and full of panic and tension, and this was like a breath of fresh air! It was such a calming book to read, and really felt like a lovely breeze compared to other novels in this genre. The focus is on the characters, their relationships, feelings and morals. 

We still get pieces of action, but even then, the focus is more on how the relationship between each of the Knights develops, with a particular focus on the queer as fuck, totally amazing, relationship between Kalanthe and Olsa. THIS is what I’ve so been looking for in fantasy. The diversity is just there and plays out as simply and naturally as any other relationship might. There is no queer trauma and homophobia in the worldbuilding, no struggles in the existence of their relationship, it just simply is. I really admire E.K Johnston’s way of making diversity so simple and I wish more authors could take note of how easy it is to do this. We have trans characters, sapphic relationships, characters of colour, female knights, and they all just exist without being there solely for their aspect of diversity. And I absolutely love it!! 

This book really was an absolute delight, and such a breathe of fresh air from usual high stakes fantasy. (Which I do still love but it’s great to take a break every now and then!) 

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

Book review: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Title: Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard

Publisher: HarperCollins

Publication date: 6 Sept 2016

Genre: Contemporary| Young adult

Page extent: 400 pages

Goodreads blurb: All Pen wants is to be the kind of girl she’s always been. So why does everyone have a problem with it? They think the way she looks and acts means she’s trying to be a boy—that she should quit trying to be something she’s not. If she dresses like a girl, and does what her folks want, it will show respect. If she takes orders and does what her friend Colby wants, it will show her loyalty. But respect and loyalty, Pen discovers, are empty words. Old-world parents, disintegrating friendships, and strong feelings for other girls drive Pen to see the truth–that in order to be who she truly wants to be, she’ll have to man up.

I really struggled to decide how to rate this book – there were parts I really liked and parts I really didn’t. I struggled a little to get through the book, given the misogynistic language from the main character, but there was a really great brother-sister relationship, and a unique exploration of gender in a way I haven’t seen previously.

The book follows Pen, a girl who doesn’t want to be seen as a girly girl. She likes gaming and cuts her hair short, and wants to be seen as one of the boys (even though she doesn’t want to be a boy). We follow Pen as she becomes friends with her best friend Colby’s ex, and finds a girlfriend of her own. The book has some quite deep content discussing gender, sexuality, teen pregnancy, sexual assault, and homophobia.

Let’s start with the good. I don’t think I’ve ever read someone like Pen in YA before, so this does give a very unique look at gender fluidity. Pen’s struggle throughout the book to be who she wants as her school, her friends and her parents all fight against her is at times difficult to read. She faces a lot of discrimination and hate – all her friends and parents are truly awful. Pen does grow throughout the book as she realises how to stand up for herself and be true to her identity.

I also loved the excellent brother-sister relationship. Johnny was probably my favourite character. He’s a very protective brother but not in one of those really terrible ‘I know better than you’ ways. He’s protective of her but still allows her to have agency and be herself. I also thought Blake was great – I loved how their relationship developed, it was very cute!

Unfortunately, I found most of my main complains about the story with Pen herself. Pen has some very misogynistic views, regularly using words like ‘pussy’ as an insult, and thinking girly girls are lesser than her. Whilst Pen becomes friends with a more ‘girly’ girl, I don’t really think these views were challenged much. I also just generally thought Pen wasn’t a very nice person. Despite the excellent brother, Pen isn’t very nice to him until the very end of the book, always shouting at him and using him as a barrier between her and her parents – in Johnny’s words, being ‘a hotheaded little idiot’. Her friends are also just awful people, and Pen is perfectly fine with this and their treatment of others – including one of her oldest friends! – until it begins to affect her more directly.

I was really disappointed with this book, I expected to enjoy it a lot more. For a book that has such great gender rep to then have equally bad gender rep, it just didn’t work for me. But a big shout-out to a really great older brother. Oh, I did also like all the video game references! Blake trying to get Pen to like Zelda was awesome.

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

Book review: Planetfall by Emma Newman

Title: Planetfall by Emma Newman

Publisher: Ace/Roc

Publication date: 3 Nov 2015

Genre: Science fiction| Adult

Page extent: 336 pages

Content warnings: severe warning for anyone suffering from anxiety as this book is very difficult to read.

Planetfall is the first of Emma Newman’s Planetfall series. Both Planetfall and Before Mars (#3) are stand alone novels and I read Before Mars earlier in the year and really enjoyed it. Planetfall is just as good – in fact, I’d even say I enjoyed it more. The mental health represenatation is absolutely exceptional. Planetfall is very much a character-driven sci-fi novel with more of a focus on people and trauma than on science or technology. This book was absolutely amazing – until the last 20 pages. The ending really didn’t satisfy me, hence why this isn’t a 5 star read.

Planetfall follows Renata, an engineer in the colony of a new planet, as she reacts to a surprise new arrival from somewhere else on the planet. Out of the wilderness of the planet walked Sung-Soo, a person who bore a remarkable resemblence to the Pathfinder who had led them to the planet. And who shouldn’t exist.

As Renata reacts to this new arrival, we find out there’s move involved than meets the eye. Something happened all those years ago when the crew made planetfall, and Renata has buried the trauma so deeply, it tears her apart as the truth is revealed.

The mystery and tension of the story is brilliant – Newman creates a very thriller-esque sci-fi, as we get hints and reveal of murder and trauma that happpened at planetfall, but we see these glimspes from the eyes of Renata, someone who has hidden these memories away so deeply she can’t remember. The mystery around the events of planetfall centre on this living organism called God’s City – a giant structure that we see as Renata explores within it. There seem to be remenants of intelligent live within the city, and we know the events of first planetfall happened here. The mystery was very engaging and I really wanted to find out what this city was and more about it. The writing was hugely visceral when within the city, and you very much got the impression it was definitely a living thing – this was paritcularly evident in scenes where Renata was forced to cut through the city. It was very realistically gross!

I adored Renata. She is by no means a likeable character – she is shown at times to be ruthless and uncaring. And yet, at the same time it is very clear she has suffered, and is suffering. Renata’s mental illness was very overwhelming to read. A big, big warning to any anxiety sufferers – this was probably the closest I’ve gotten to having to physically stop reading a book because of the level of anxiety I was feeling whilst reading. I have a huge admiration for Emma for being able to write so brutally realistically.

Sung-Soo was a character I disliked very much from the start, pretty much entirely because of the awful way he pushed Renata to force her to be open with him despite her mental illness. It was very jarring and awful to see Renata so stressed and anxious because of him. I think because of this, I was very wary of him as a character.

In saying that, I did love the ending of Sung-Soo’s arc. I thought it was absolutely perfect, and I just wish the book had ended there! The last 20 pages or so as Renata found out the mystery of God’s City kind of just felt like it should have been a totally different book? It just didn’t hugely make sense to me and felt very random and totally out of character of the rest of the book.

But despite the ending, I did really enjoy this book! Emma Newman has such an incredible ability to write mental illness into her characters in such an awfully realistic way that it is truly difficult to read. It was such a gripping book, and I definitely recommend this series to everyone!

Paws out,
Rach + Draco