Thursday, August 18, 2022

Book Review: Afterworld, by William Matarazzo

Look, I know it is most unusual. I am about to review my son’s book – a book I helped him with in terms of editing, discussion and input, throughout its creation over his entire high school career. But – there’s stuff I want you to know about it. And you should also know: I didn’t steer him too much. The story is truly his. 

The book is called Afterworld and it was published last June. I have just finished my non-editor read-through: just me lying on the couch and enjoying the tale, without grammatical or critical eyes. (For the most part. It’s tough.) 

Here is the back cover overview: 

"Erik's innocence faded when his parents were slain in battle and being forced into his princely duties proves to be a much heavier responsibility than he expected. With these responsibilities comes the appearance of a strange, lone Mermaid. The closer the two of them get, the more they uncover the secret of the Mermaid's past, and the mystery of an Orc whose obsession it is to relentlessly hunt her down. Erik unwittingly plunges into an adventure beyond his wildest fantasies. Upon discovering that the man who killed his parents seeks to bring about a second apocalypse to erase Humankind, he takes it upon himself to set out and stop this horrible fate from coming to pass. To defend his father-figure, his friends, and the woman he grows to love, he must muster the strength to save the human race while dealing with the ghosts of his past – all the while trying to survive as the priority target of all the forces of darkness. Afterworld is a novel in the epic fantasy tradition, but with many modern storytelling elements, including romance and intrigue. The perfect "read" for those who love fantasy and adventure."

Afterworld is a true “epic fantasy” novel, coming in at over 750 pages and containing a healthy sampling of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” elements. It is arranged in three internal “books” and Will is not shy about his inspiration having been Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (he thanks Tolkien in the afterword.) Despite the nods to the grand-daddy of all fantasy novels, it is not a LotR copy, in any way. (In order to avoid spoilers, I will simply mention that there is a logical, plot-based reason for any-and-all similarities.) 

The book finds its own modern/classic voice and the characters are relatable in terms of their struggles and self-doubts. The circumstances might be different, but their inner monologues are relatable. Will sometimes elevates the prose for effect, but one never feels the characters are flat – they never read like someone out of …Gilgamesh… Each of them deals with things like embarrassment, awkwardness and even lack of sleep: after one great battle, the main character, Erik, dozes for eighteen hours straight. Will even references PTSD at one point. I just can’t imagine Beowulf falling victim to PTSD, but I can imagine it happening to a battle-tested individual, like Erik.

One thing that I find very comforting – nay, future-affirming -- in the book is that Will has created female characters who are strong, tough, and of consequence in their own world. At the same time, there is never a whiff of agenda in it. These women never require suspension of disbelief – they are never Lara Croft, armed with a dagger but beating off 700 enemies armed with assault rifles. All I can guess is that Will is of a generation that has seen and, so, believes in the undisputed strength of women. He doesn’t feel he needs to make a case for it: it is his reality. (Maybe the world is doing something right? Maybe his parents did – or his mom is just that reality!) All of the characters, of both sexes, in the book, are, at turns, vulnerable and powerful; you know…like real people. In this fictional world, femininity and masculinity are worn like lounge clothes, not as armor. There is balance. Elaina, for instance, is softly beautiful, gentle, and feminine, but she will wrestle an Orc into deadly waters and slit his throat before you can raise a brow. She is not asked, by Erik, to stay behind for her own protection. If she stays behind, it is to do something he trusts only her to do. 

In terms of plot, there is plenty of world-built depth. Seasoned fantasy readers will enjoy both the lore of the world and the incredibly rewarding Easter-eggs that refer to our own world. However, as I have found with all good fantasy, one could simply read the story for the plot as it relates directly to the characters –  a plot which contains romance, adventure and action galore – and sort of let the lore flow by, but the story becomes more rich if one doesn’t. 

The action sequences are worth a mention, as well. As with many modern writers, Will is inspired by both film and fiction and his action sequences are cinematic in nature. Both in his action scenes and elsewhere, he displays a natural articulation, sometimes jumping around a battlefield between separated friends and enemies and sometimes describing fights in tight quarters with multiple characters. His attention to detail is sharp and engaging. Sometimes action sequences in fiction are invitations to skim. Not here. 

One of the most noteworthy things about the plot is that, while hitting many of the required notes of the genre, he also avoids a lot of clichés. Things don’t always happen in the order one would expect. Sometimes, they don’t happen at all…

Negatives? Try again. I’m reviewing my son. But any literary type who sees the flaws in this young writer's work who can’t also see the shocking level maturity of craft isn’t a literary type at all. 

Will has accomplished something few eighteen-year-olds ever have. It puts him, at least age-wise, in the company of Mary Shelley and fantasy genius, Peter S. Beagle (though Beagle took another year). As a guy who teaches English and creative writing in high school, I can tell you that the boy stands out. (Oh, shut up – I’m being as objective as possible.) If he were one of my students, I’d find myself in that place of not wanting to freak him out too much with my assessment of his potential as a writer. He gets is. Sure, fantasy is not everyone’s cup of chai, but one can’t hide talent nor shine dookie. It’s there

Afterworld is a book about love and courage – courage driven by love and fear that is often borderline crippling. (Again, no Beowulfs , here…)  It is, at turns, funny, violent, harrowing, heartwarming and lovely. It builds on its inspirations by paying those inspirations homage and then morphing into Will’s imaginings. It’s a book in which emotion is a struggle, as it is in real life. Erik fights with his protective instincts; he wrestles with the urge to crush evil – even to seek satisfying revenge by bringing pain to those who have brought his loved-ones pain. Still, he knows that the chance for redemption is a birthright… but woe to him who does not seize that last opportunity… 

You gotta draw the line somewhere. 

...because, subtly…sprinkled throughout: God is watching. As I said, Will is not about agenda in his writing. You could almost miss it: here is this “Afterworld,” so different from ours, and though the rituals have dimmed and though there is never mention of a church or religion, God is peeking around the corners of the story. Not some Sky Spirit; not some retelling of a fantasy god, but the “Our Father” God. Abba. Yaweh. 

I have just put far more emphasis on it than Will does in his entire book. I’m reading like the trained literary critic I am. For the average reader, it would probably slip by. For the careful reader, it is a detail of note. And is shows a young writer with a sense of craft: if you miss it, you miss it and the story stands up. If you catch it, you get it: redemption is His thing and it’s a major theme.

In the end, the book is a page-turner. Sure, the length can scare off some readers. And, I can tell you, I was a little worried: Can I read this thing again (third time through) and actually enjoy it? The answer is yes. It is a perfect escape; a great late night read with enough thematic depth to keep it from being an episodic Cliff's note. This is not sword-and-sorcery. This is the tale of real people in fantastic circumstances. The dark magic they have to deal with just looks different than ours. Whether we are fighting The Fiendthane, Virion, or being beaten down by a domineering boss or the threat of terminal sickness, all of us lie beneath the covers some mornings, struggling to summon the strength to fight another day. We all do battle with monsters at some point. 

Pro tip: Use a small pillow for support. Sucker’s heavy. 

And, yeah. I'm proud as heck. 

Afterworld is available as an e-book and as print-on-demand, HERE. Also on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc in e-book form. Hook a brother up. 


  1. That blog was very nice!!! Your writting is very touching to some kids and you are a great influence for all of us.
    Anonymous student from 3rd period

    1. Thanks, Anonymous student! Haha. You guys are awesome.