There are two whole novels here, and I enjoyed both of them enormously.
One is a paranormal fantasy about a California girl who dies and meets the Indian god of death, and thereafter can see and talk to ghosts. It reminds me quite a bit of Meg Cabot's Mediator novels, which I also enjoyed enormously. This novel is ostensibly the work of a high school senior during NaNoWriMo.
The other book is a realistic contemporary about a high school senior who managed to score a contract and a whopping advance for the paranormal fantasy she wrote during NaNoWriMo, and how she uses that money to move to Manhattan, befriend real, professional writers in the city, and learn how to rewrite her novel into something good, and also find love and independence while maintaining a relationship with her family and high school friends. This one feels like a modern comedy of manners.
Both stories are grounded in a plausible reality while also incorporating some whimsy. Westerfeld has been a popular writer of YA series for a while now, and is married to a writer I likewise enjoy enormously (Justine Larbalestier!), so there isn't a lot of angsting about The Great American Novel but there is great insight into both the process of editing a book, and about all the other business related to publishing. As a former flap monkey, the book tour killed me.
Reading this book, and thinking about it just after, I realized that my own reviews and those of most reviewers I follow, tend to focus on plot and characters and themes and motifs, not unlike the discussion in many English Lit courses. What I don't often address is how reading a book makes me feel. Reading Afterworlds is pretty much a full emotional banquet: there is pain and sadness and romance and humor, and, AND there's even an examination of how stories can be appealing while being problematic, with Darcy having an opportunity to hear those criticisms and learn from them, and revise her novel in more positive ways. All of us are steeped in a culture of assimilation and stereotype and prejudice, and all of us are creating problems for our fellow beings all the time just being thoughtless. Westerfeld is showing us, in a kind and not at all off-putting or sermonizing sort of way, how we can improve ourselves if we listen to the critical feedback. So, not only is it a book that makes you feel all kinds of things while you're reading it, it isn't a guilty pleasure at all.
And I kind of hate that we're still at this place, but I would like to give Westerfeld some cookies for showing a New York that isn't all white male anglo-saxon protestant hetero. This is a New York I recognize full of all kinds of people.