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The Afterward

Review

The Afterward

What happens after the heroes win? What happens to the knights on the quest and the thief they brought with them after the mysterious godsgem has successfully cured the king and ensured a bright future for the realm, but not necessarily for those who delivered it? THE AFTERWARD is a high fantasy concerned with these questions, but most of all, it is a love story between a knight and a thief, and a queer, feminist celebration for all the readers who love the fantasy genre, but always felt left out of it.

"Johnston handles their stories with real sensitivity, and gives us beautiful, satisfying conclusions. This is the kind of woman-driven, inclusive adventure fantasy that I've yearned for my whole life."

THE AFTERWARD alternates timeframes and perspectives. It weaves together before and after the culmination of the quest, through the eyes of the apprentice knight Kalanthe and the street thief Olsa Rhetsdaughter. Kalanthe needed to embark on the quest for the godsgem, as she must do whatever she can in the hopes to pay off her debts and become a full knight. She was selected out of many valid candidates in her year, for Kalanthe Ironheart was known for her resolve and dedication. Olsa was conscripted by one of the quest’s leaders, Sir Erris. The knight had asked Olsa to use her known skills as a spy and a street thief to assist her before, which made Olsa quite a few powerful enemies — making it an easy decision for her to acquiesce to the quest. Along the way, they meet reckless demons of the Old God, wrangle with gentle and dark magics alike, and must make terrible choices to reclaim the godsgem.

Once the quest has been completed, most fantasy novels would wrap up tidily with a happily ever after. But Johnston satisfyingly subverts tropes here, reckoning with a street thief now too famous to get away with trickery at her old scams, and a would-be knight who must marry a man of a certain station, one who would expect her to produce heirs.

Some readers may find that the back-and-forth structure of the novel may be a bit confusing, but I loved getting both Kalanthe and Olsa’s perspectives, as well as how Johnston uses the technique for world building and reckoning with the aftermath of an epic quest.

I loved that this is a solidly standalone YA fantasy novel, which are typically a bit less common --- although I must say, I would LOVE to revisit Olsa and Kalanthe in more books! I do think this has crossover appeal for readers of adult fantasy, though it is a beautiful YA.

I loved the magic within Cadria, but my favorite part of this novel — what makes it one of my favorite fantasy novels of the year --- is the characters. I adore the well-written cast of queer and trans lady knights and that one reckless thief! This is a high fantasy adventure, but it's a tender, romantic love story at heart, and a celebration of the powerful women. There is action and danger within these pages, but I spent most of the novel swooning over Olsa and Kalanthe and the passion burgeoning between them.

Johnston infuses the novel with queer, trans and feminist truths --- actually addressing everything lots of fantasy nerds shout at their favorite yet patriarchal fantasy novels about periods and women in combat and too-white casts! Within the realm of a seamless second world fantasy, she calls out racism and cissexism. She gives women of color and queer women center stage in an epic high fantasy, lets them be full and complex characters --- and knights --- and lets them fall in love with each other. As a queer reader, I never once felt like the characters I had come to love were in danger of being violated or denigrated because of their identity --- instead, Johnston handles their stories with real sensitivity, and gives us beautiful, satisfying conclusions. This is the kind of woman-driven, inclusive adventure fantasy that I've yearned for my whole life.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on February 27, 2019

The Afterward
by E. K. Johnston