RogerBW's Blog

The Afterward, E. K. Johnston 09 May 2024

2019 fantasy. The Quest is over; the magic gem destroyed the Old God, cured the king, and ushered in peace and happiness for everyone. But Apprentice Knight Kalanthe still needs to find a rich husband to pay back the cost of her training, and Olsa still needs to steal for a living even though she's bought herself free of her obligation to the Thief Bosses.

They also fell in love with each other on the quest, but really, that's the least of their problems. (Flashbacks to "Before" show how the situation ended up as it does in "After", though there aren't many surprises.)

One's own background knowledge has to do a lot of heavy lifting, though. What does the city look like? Why is there a formal organisation of thieves that everyone knows about and the knights fighting for justice never seem to consider taking on? You've read other fantasy, fill it in for yourself. And then I find myself disorientated as the narration flips to oddly specific: Olsa is black, and an orphan who's largely raised herself, so she needs to be told how to braid her hair. There's a long clumsy diversion into the use of the word "bisexual". I'm all for representation, but this is a society in which nobody cares that all the knights on the Quest were women (apparently by coincidence, though most of the people we see in charge of things are men) or that some of them weren't born that way, so the real-world message of "and that's Just Fine", which is clearly part of the author's remit, fells rather flat in that there's nobody in the world who needs to hear it. I suppose there's a certain implicit suggestion of "so why can't we do that out here in the real world too", but that's barely present in the writing compared with some of what felt to me like the heavy-handedness of getting the representation into this fantasy world in the first place

Combine that with the principals being separated for most of "After", so that we see their relationship mostly in flashback, and this isn't much of a romance. Rather, it's separate challenges: Kalanthe gets an offer of marriage which is clearly the best she'll receive, and she'd clearly be a fool not to accept it, but she still needs to nerve herself up to do so. The Thief Lords have evidently set up Olsa to fail repeatedly until she runs out of influential friends to have her pardoned, but she hasn't worked this out, and although she's determinedly independent she needs to learn to accept the help of those friends for more than just a get out of jail free card.

There are bits of this book that I love, mostly in the personalities of the leads, but I kept expecting it to go somewhere more challenging than it did. Things quickly come to a climax and then everything is resolved, at least for the principals, with little time even to dwell on their potential happiness together.

Johnston dedicates this book to David and Leigh Eddings, so I'm guessing she doesn't know about their child abuse conviction. But also she manages to avoid the Eddings' gender essentialism, so maybe she just read their books as an uncritical child and hasn't gone back. Very wise.

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