E. K. Johnston’s 2019 The Afterward is a standalone secondary-universe fantasy.
Summoned out of oblivion by power-hungry fools, the Old God raised an army of mind-controlled slaves and marched to retake the world it once owned. As so often happens to world-conquering villains, the God was vanquished by seven adventurers led by Sir Erris Quicksword.
The world saved, the adventurers were each rewarded (although not too lavishly) and were free to return to their old lives. Or so some might have thought.
Olsa Rhetsdaughter was an obscure thief when she helped saved the world. Her reward was large enough to buy her freedom from the Thief Bosses. What was left was not enough to live on. Nothing for it but to accept a series of increasingly risky contracts from her former bosses.
Like Olsa, the knight Kalathe Ironheart’s reward was large enough to free her from some debts, but not enough to give her the life she wants. She may have saved the world, but she is still expected to make an advantageous marriage to some well-born stranger. She would much prefer Olsa. If only class didn’t keep them apart. If only Sir Edramore of Lycenia had not made an offer Kalanthe probably will not be able to refuse.
Fame has not helped Olsa. Her name leads the list of usual suspects. As a consequence she has been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death a surprising number of times in the year since the world was saved. It is only thanks to her connections in high places that she keeps getting pardoned in time to avoid execution. Her former allies may be running out of patience with Olsa.
Olsa’s seventh reprieve comes courtesy of Mage Ladros, who was, like Olsa, one of the seven. Mage Ladros retained possession of the godsgem that played a crucial part in the quest. His colleagues at the Mage Keep agreed with Ladros that the godsgem needed to be carefully guarded. Unfortunately, the method on which they settled turned out to be good at transforming live mages into dead ones.
Ladros seeks out Olsa, convinced that she can solve the godsgem problem, He’s astonished to find that she has not thriven since she helped avert apocalypse. He fully intends to do something nice for Olsa. Once she solves Ladros’ problem …
Olsa does more than solve the mages’ problem. She escalates it. Once she has possession of the godsgem, she realizes that she will be able to solve everyone’s problems — whether or not they want her to do so.
Why does Olsa keep getting caught? Well, she’s not the world’s best thief. She’s just the thief the party encountered on their way to save the world. When you think about it, extremely talented thieves probably never get recruited for stuff like that because nobody notices they were around until they are long gone with the loot1. Also, her bosses seem to be determined to get her hanged for some reason. It’s not just that they send her on suicide missions; they drop a dime on her to make sure the watch is looking for Olsa and not the people for whom she is a distraction. There has to be a better use for a member to whom the entire world owes its untortured existence.
I am little puzzled here. If Johnston establishes that Olsa and Ironheart fell madly in love with each other on the way to save the world, with (mildly) explicit scenes ensuring the reader understands that yes, the two women are smitten with each other, how will Johnston be able to pull a Rowling and astonish fans with a belated revelation that Olsa and Ironheart were an item?
Readers who grew up reading authors like Eddings and Feist will find certain plot elements seem oddly familiar. Johnston’s world is one in which apocalyptic perils are routine and some random collection of adventurers will always find themselves standing between the world and certain doom. It’s a world in which such adventurers aren’t rewarded as they deserve.
It’s also a world in which certain demographics ignored by the commercial fantasies of the 1980s get their time in the spotlight. Humans aren’t limited to pink skin, women get to have adventures too, and transsexuals aren’t nonexistent. Pity that this world’s politics are so Normandy circa 900 AD. But that’s the genre default and can be done well.
Johnston is an author local to me; she lives in Ontario’s Stratford2. She’s published a number of books that have received a fair amount of attention.
This is the second book of hers that I have read. I didn’t grow up on 1980s-stye commercial fantasy so I’m not her target market — but I can see why the target market might adore this novel. It’s a competently written, amiable adventure tale of two star-crossed lovers.
1: I’m imagining a version of the Lord of the Rings in which the adventurers reach the gates of Mordor only to realize Frodo had his pocket picked back in Bree and the Ring of Extreme Plottiness is nowhere to be seen.
2: “Stratford?” you ask. “Are Ontarians utterly bereft of original place names?” Yes. Yes, they are. In this case, the town decided to capitalize on the name and support live theatre.