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So what do you get if you cross The Lovely Bones with Netflix’s The Walking Dead? (Wait, you haven’t watched TWD? Too busy waiting for the next Game of Thrones?) What you get is AFTERLIFE — Marcus Sakey’s smart, provocative though, sadly, sometimes silly novel. But one thing is certain: it’s unputdownable.

Sakey offers a grotesque version of the afterlife — it’s not the heaven we hope for, nor the hell we dread; it’s somewhere in between, maybe purgatory. But even that’s not certain. Referred to as the “echo” by those who populate it, this afterlife is in Chicago, where the story takes place and where people have been dying at the hands of a sniper.

Once dead, they awake unscathed — in the exact same spot — only in a grey-skied facsimile of the living city they just left. Most are confused at first, unable to grasp where they are or what the echo is. But one “newbie” figures it out almost immediately:

It makes sense, sort of. Entropy always increases.… Physics tells us things fall apart, but life is the opposite of that.… So if life is the alpha, and nothingness is the omega, then why shouldn’t there be stages in between? I bet there are more stages than this one.

Just as in The Walking Dead, the echo is home to a motley group of people who form a tight-knit community to fend off Eaters. Eaters feed on souls to gain strength, and feeding is addictive — the more they eat, the stronger they become; the stronger they become, the more they need to eat.

Permeability is another aspect of the echo. It turns out the membrane between life and the afterlife is slightly porous, and sadly that’s where the plot — along with the prose — go over the top. Not right away, but eventually. At the end, the book felt like a screenplay for an action-packed X-Man movie: giant clouds with red eyes or blood-dripping jaws rolling through the sky. Really.

BUT the premise — the idea of two worlds, the living and the dead, co-existing on separate planes, right alongside one another — is nicely done. And you’ll love the fun: echo people can walk into a high-end clothing store, take whatever they want; as soon as they depart, real life kicks in, reverting to the way it was before the ghosts nabbed the goods.

What’s the plot, you ask? Well, I’ll give you the barest of outlines because each chapter offers surprises. So here’s what I can give away: there’s a creepy sniper killing people in Chicago. He’s pursued by two FBI agents — Claire McCoy and Will Brody. And there’s a love story. That’s all I’m saying.

So read this one for fun. But read it for more interesting reasons, as well — questions regarding the meaning of life and what comes afterward. Do actions here on earth have consequences in the afterlife? Do goodness and morality matter at all?

Even more important: if we could start all over again, like the echo people — building community, setting ground rules — what would the new world look like? Sakey poses that question, and that’s what I really enjoyed about Afterlife.

See our Reading Guide for Afterlife.

 


Philip J. Adler
P.J. teaches high school AP English. After dusting off the blackboard chalk, he pens essays and reviews (and works on his desk-drawer novel). An avid reader and self-proclaimed nerd, P.J. leans to sci-fi but also enjoys nonfiction—science and technology, history and current events.

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