Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Afterward: A Thief, A Knight, And What Happens After The Happily Ever After

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Heaven help me, I love lady knights, bonus points for them being queer. Most of the time I have to make do with headcanons and fanfic if I want both. Luckily for me, one of my favorite YA authors, E. K. Johnston, gave me the queer lady knight/snarky thief ship of my dreams. Poignant, inclusive, and effortlessly enjoyable, The Afterward is a uniquely and well-told tale of love, pain, and what comes after the happily ever after.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Rundown

It’s 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 home the gem are renowned in story and song, but for two fellows on the quest, peace and prosperity don’t come easily.

Apprentice Knight Kalanthe Ironheart wasn’t meant for heroism so early in life, and while she has no intention of giving up the notoriety she’s earned, reputation doesn’t pay her bills. 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 and thief, she lived hand to mouth on the streets until fortune–or fate–pulled her into Kalanthe’s orbit. And now she’s reluctant to leave it. Even more alarmingly, her fame has made 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.

The Good Stuff

As I’ve come to expect from Johnston, her female protagonists are as diverse as they are richly textured. The entire crew of the Quest features a wide array of age, body type, skin color, cultural background, sexuality, and skillset. While common in YA to have “opposites attract” with the two primary protagonists, Johnston’s pairings are always fresh. Noble knight/morally ambiguous thief sounds familiar, but trust me, you haven’t seen it done this way before.

At first I connected more strongly to Olsa, but I warmed to Kalanthe over the series and by the end, I can’t tell you who I love more. They’re both fully realized, intriguing characters in their own way. Imagine…Brienne and Asha Greyjoy, if Asha were actually bisexual and a thief.

It helps that the story they both embody in their own way—finding independence in a society where what makes them interesting is also what cuts against convention—strikes home to me personally. They’re both seeking alternate paths to the ones society and their immediate communities have proscribed for them. Though different, there’s a beautiful parallelism to the way their stories echo each other, both across time and across perspective. One moment near the end took my breath away with its symmetry, but that’s getting into spoiler territory.

Johnston approaches the concept of what comes ‘after’ a Quest has been completed with her own special flair. Rather than a grimdark deconstruction of ‘happy endings’ or an exploration of futility, The Afterward approaches the ‘happily ever after’ as if it were real life, plain and simple. Life is messy, complicated, and rarely neatly wrapped up just because something difficult is over. New challenges arise, new pressures, new anxieties.

Helping out on a Quest to save the world and the kingdom may not make one’s life worse, but it will make it more complicated. Which is precisely what Johnston gives us.

One of the things I adore most about Johnston’s works is the way seemingly casual lines of dialogue or exposition showcase how well she’s done her research—be it about worldbuilding, cultural and racial diversity, or sociopolitical relevancy. It’s rare to see birth control mentioned in a medievalesque setting, much less from a female perspective. Even more rare, Johston includes a discussion of different hair types and their needs when Sir Uleweya teaches Olsa how to braid her natural hair.

Such tidbits are almost blink-and-you-miss-them, but the very nonchalance of it all is evidence of how good a writer Johnston is. Whether it be biracial children with natural hair, pointed remarks about lack of consent, the violence of trying to force someone who identifies as ace to have sexual desire, the inclusion of a Hijabi Scholar—scratch that Accredited Scholar—or mentioning that underfed girls would of course not get their period for years, Johnston knows how to pack the details in without them feeling forced or out of context. In other writers hands such comments might be a hammer. Johnston weaves them into her world with the deftness of the finest silver needle.

Many of these moments are quite poignant, especially where gender identity and sexuality is concerned. I love her name for knights who identify as ace; “shield wed” will forever be in my vocabulary now. One especially moving moment occurs in the first third of the book, where Olsa learns that one of the lady knights in their party is a trans woman. I can’t repeat it in full here, but suffice to say, I teared up reading it. I immediately sent it to a friend of mine who is trans, who was equally moved and excited by it as I was.

I especially love her shade directed at the academy. As a fellow former denizen of that ivory tower, I know she writes from experience. (Side note: Johnston, if you’re reading this, I see that passage about translating and girl, I felt that deep in the core of my being. Props to a fellow scholar of ancient languages/archaeology/ancient near eastern studies.)

Despite touching on serious topics like PTSD, The Afterward never loses hope. The scars we earn from our battles, whether physical or mental, stay with us. But that doesn’t mean they define us. Sir Terriam, while a secondary character, was one of my favorites because of how much her story reflects my own journey with PTSD. I deeply appreciate that Johnston gave space for metaphorical as well as literal demons.

And there’s an undertone of dark humor and understated-ness that speaks to the millennial experience of facing uncertainty with absurdity. It’s quite delicious.

Speaking of delicious, queer lady love. Oh man, I don’t want to get into spoiler territory here but, it’s good. Mutual pining gets me every time, and Johnston serves up a whole heap of it. However unlikely their partnership and love may be, noble knight Kalanthe and too-cheeky-for-her-own-health-and-safety Olsa are a delight.

Potential Drawbacks

If you don’t enjoy multiple perspectives or narrative styles, this may not be the best choice. The novel itself switches from past to present and between the narrative perspectives of Olsa and Kalanthe for each. Aside from being labeled “before” and “after,” the past and present storylines are also told in first and third person perspective, respectively. I was initially a bit leery of this choice, but by the end, I didn’t even remember what my initial objection had been. In short, the well-told storylines and intriguing characters swept me up into the story so much the narrative shift barely registered.

Despite working well overall, the difference between Olsa’s and Kalanthe’s ‘past’ narrative voices (the sections told in first person perspective) can be difficult to distinguish at times. There were a couple chapters where, until I got the narrator mentioning the other character by name, I wasn’t entirely certain whose head I was in. Every now and again Olsa used words or phrases I’d expect from Kalanthe and vice versa. It didn’t bring me out of the story, but it did mean I sometimes had to reread a couple of paragraphs at the opening of a chapter once I’d figured out who the narrator was.

Kalanthe’s and Olsa’s arcs differ a great deal in terms of stakes. While both tales have their moments of adventure—especially in the ‘past’—‘present’ Kalanthe’s tale lacks some of the urgency of Olsa’s. Being pressured to marry to erase a debt no doubt has its own kind of existential pressures. But that’s hardly the same as facing death and then being tasked…well, spoilers, but let’s just say it’s a big deal and Olsa could, once again, have died or hurt a lot of people.

At the same time, I’m going to be a bit millennial and say that in the times we live in, fears about financial stability and compromising one’s true self for the sake of future security is a much more relevant crisis. It may not be high octane, but it’s relatable. Almost terrifyingly so. In those moments where Kalanthe asks herself, “Am I willing to accept a less than ideal life and not find fulfillment in ways that matter deeply to me in order to secure a safe and stable future?” I felt like I was staring in a mirror. So while it may not be the most glamorous or adventurous tale, it’s one that most of us under a certain age can uncomfortably relate to.

Final Score: 8/10

The Afterward has everything I love about E. K. Johnston: casual diversity, compelling characters, mutual pining, and creative narrative choices. Equal parts funny, heartfelt, and entertaining, the true heart of the novel is in the bond between two young women. How it’s tested. How they help each other and fail each other and love each other through it all. It’s about the bond forged among a team of five lady knights, a thief, and one grumpy lobster of a mage (whom I love with all my heart) that transcends their differences and their scars. So if you have a free afternoon, I highly recommend you spend it with The Afterward. It’s got lady knights and it’s queer, what more could you ask for?

Images Courtesy of Dutton Books

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