Book review: The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R Pan

Title: The Astonishing Colour of After by Emily X.R Pan

Publisher: Orion Children’s Books

Publication date: 22 March 2018

Genre: Magical realism | Young Adult | Contemporary

Page extent: 480 pages

Goodreads blurb: When Leigh’s mother dies by suicide she leaves only a scribbled note – I want you to remember.

Leigh doesn’t understand its meaning and wishes she could turn to her best friend, Axel – if only she hadn’t kissed him and changed everything between them.

Guided by a mysterious red bird, Leigh travels to Taiwan to meet her grandparents for the first time. There, Leigh retreats into art and memories, where colours collide, the rules of reality are broken and the ghosts of the past refuse to rest … 

But Leigh is determined to unlock her family’s secrets. 

Content warnings: suicide, suicidal ideation, depression, hallucinations, insomina

Wow. Sometimes you read a book so unique, so different it’s extremely different to write about. The Astonishing Colour of After was utterly unlike anything I’ve ever read – it was an artistic masterpiece, of colour, of music, of emotion.

Leigh’s mother has just committed suicide, leaving a note saying ‘I want you to remember’. When Leigh’s mother appears to her as a bright red bird, she is drawn to visit Taiwan, connect with the grandparents she has never met and to try find the bird. Told through a series of memories following her family, flashbacks to her friendship with best friend Axel, and present time following her grandparents and mysterious woman Feng, Leigh discovers her family and learns how to deal with grief.

This book was such a beautiful tale, and I really don’t think I will be able to express how unique it is in a review. But I shall try! The prose is really the absolute star. Told using art and colour to express emotion, the book reads wonderfully mysterious and dreamlike. It is absolutely stunning, and I adored the how the language of colour was used to associate both people, memories as well as the crumbling mental state of Leigh as she tried to deal with her grief. The effects of insomnia told through colours – cracks of deepest black slowly encroaching across Leigh’s sight – was fantastic. 

It’s emotionally hard-hitting, particularly the later half of the book and the scenes between Leigh and her father, who also is struggling with feelings of guilt and grief in the wake of his wife’s suicide. Their relationship is fraught with the pain of the years her father spent absent, of his push to give up the art Leigh uses to escape, and the family secrecy which is only coming to light after the death of her mother. The resolution and growth of the relationship between Leigh and her father was just beautiful to see and was so emotive. 

The Astonishing Colour of After is astonishing in its complexity and its beauty. With such an honest look at the impact of mental illness, of the grief and guilt that comes after, and with such a stunning use of language, this book was a brilliantly unique read.

Paws out,
Rach + Draco

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