I thought that The Afterward would be a fun adventure story, and it was, but I was thrilled to realize that it is also a moving romance that works beautifully as a romance novel despite its unusual structure. This story describes what happens to a group of knights (all women) plus a thief and an apprentice knight (also women) during and after an epic quest. It’s told from the viewpoints of the thief (Olsa) and the apprentice (Kalanthe) who fall in love with each other during the journey but can’t figure out how to stay together afterwards. The story is told in alternating viewpoints and from the time of “Before” (the quest) and “After.”
The “Before” involves seven people (a mage, a thief, an apprentice knight, and four knights) who are sent on a quest to locate the godstone and bring it to their king. As with most challenges, it doesn’t really matter what the godstone is or why they need it because in literary terms the true treasure is the friendships they make along the way. This truth is highlighted by the fact that we (the readers) never see the whole quest. We are dropped in and out of it – it’s like catching random episodes of a TV show that has a season-long arc. Most of what we see are quiet moments between characters although we do get to see the big climactic fight scene. Yes, I wanted more of the adventure, and yet there was something magical, and very thematically appropriate, about dropping in and out.
The “After” takes place about a year after the completion of the quest. During the “Before”, Olsa (thief) and Kalanthe (apprentice) fell in love. However, Kalanthe has always known that she would have to pay off her knight training debt as well as the debts of her family by marrying a wealthy man. Her job would then become running the household, having children, and training new knights, as well as defending her lands if needed. Meanwhile, when the quest is over, Olsa goes back to the streets to support herself and pay her own debts by stealing. They are reunited, along with many of the original party members, when Olsa is needed to deal with the godstone which is still causing problems. During this time, Olsa and Kalanthe have an opportunity to consider their futures and heal physically and emotionally from the events of the adventure and the misunderstandings that separated Olsa from her comrades when it ended.
There’s so much to love about this book. For starters, all these people happen to be women. Some knights are men, just not these ones. No one cares about the gender of the knights or the mage or the thief. It’s assumed that women can be all these things. It’s not a utopian society, it’s just a thing that in this place women are knights if they want to be, and they can pay for the years of training, and they turn out to be good at it. No one cares.
Additionally, no one is scandalized by the fact that Kalanthe is a lesbian, or that Olga is bisexual, or that one of the knights is asexual and another is transgender. However, Kalanthe is still expected to marry a man. It seems that certain feudal traditions remain, so even though sexuality in itself may not be a cause for scandal, marriages are still expected to be heterosexual and practical in terms of money and inheritance. The book explores what this means for people, especially Kalanthe, but I could have used a bit more exploration on a broader level.
The romance is lovely and tender and marked by mutual respect. Kalanthe and Olsa are the youngest (around sixteen or seventeen in the “Before” sections, although this does not read like a YA given the cultural contexts of their lives). I liked the fact that each person loves qualities in the other person despite those qualities meaning trouble. Olsa loves Kalanthe’s sense of honor, even though it means that Kalanthe refuses to marry someone and still have a relationship with Olsa. Kalanthe loves Olsa’s pride, independence, and cleverness, all traits that cause Olsa to return to the streets. You get a real sense that these two women love each other wholly, entirely, even though they suck at having relationships. Alas, I do have do dock this book a point or two because the happy ending is only allowable because of a circumstance that I hesitate to call “luck” but which is basically luck, and seems contrived as a result.
What sets this book apart is not the romance, although I loved the romance. It’s the small moments and the relationships between the characters. Olsa has never been parented, and has always suffered from malnutrition, so after eating regularly for a while, she gets her first period and the other knights explain what it is, how to care for herself, and how to prevent periods on the road (and babies). An older knight braids Olsa’s hair for her when it starts to grow longer (this is one of the few times that race is mentioned, and then only casually, in that the older knight and Olsa have similar hair color and texture). Kalanthe teaches Olsa how to read and how to ride a horse. There is a lot of training and sparring and teasing. The questers teach each other, care for each other, and respect each other. The fight scenes are masterful in terms of demonstrating teamwork in combat.
I was happily amazed by how creative and heartfelt this book was. Yes, the ending was pretty contrived, but the last scenes remained deeply moving and satisfying. It was a solid romance, a solid fantasy, and a lovely case of representation with an all-woman team of adventurers of various skin tones and sexualities. I would read this book again and again and I wish that there was more of it.
For more about the godstone, see TV Tropes “The MacGuffin,” , a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock, or “the goober” in Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, as in “There’s always a bypass key, a virus key, a who-cares key. I can never remember, so I always call it a goober.” I love it that this book just assumes that we get this about the godstone so it doesn’t go on a lot about it.