THE AFTERWARD is a book that begins with an interesting premise: how easy is it for one to fit back into "regular life" after you've spent a year on the road, Questing to overthrow a Big Bad? Unfortunately, while the premise and characters are well-introduced, the overall follow through in this book fell flat.
Kalanthe and Olsa have a complicated history. Kalanthe is an apprentice knight, and Olsa is thief. Together, they were part of a group that spent a year traveling the realm on a Quest to save the kingdom from a great evil. The Quest was successful and the party returned home heroes, but that also meant a return to obligations and social strata. With Kalanthe entertaining a marriage proposal to cover her training debts and Olsa returning to her life of crime, the easy romance these two women found on the road is shattered - and it may take another threat to the realm to mend it.
One thing I did really enjoy was how Johnston balanced using familiar medieval fantasy world tropes while leaving most of the sexist coloring behind. Both men and women can become knights without any kind of commentary (and the Quest group itself is partially comprised of 4 female knights and their female apprentice). Even same-sex relationships don't seem particularly frowned upon in this world, except when it comes to that pesky matter of producing an heir. Kalanthe needs to find a marriage match to pay off her training debts (essentially student loans); the new husband would pay her a "bride price," but it's expected she will produce an heir to take over the estates, which of course will put a woman in a physical job out of commission for several months. Women in this society have more autonomy than this genre usually sees, but still have some very natural complications in their lives. These kind of gender relations are a fresh wrinkle in a genre that can run dangerously stale.
The rest of the story, however, wasn't my cup of tea. This is less an adventure tale (although there are spurts of action) then a contemplation on two women of very different backgrounds trying to navigate their lives and figure out if they can ever make a relationship work in the "real world." I would have been perfectly fine with that if it had felt like the story was going anywhere. Although some of the initial setup caught my attention (Olsa, for instance, is thief who is constantly thwarted when she tries to ply her trade because she is recognized everywhere she goes as a Hero), the momentum quickly sputtered out.
That in part has to do with the structure, which flashed back and forth between "present day" Olsa and Kalanthe and "before," when they were traveling on their quest. The "before" parts showed the development of their relationship, but didn't feel like it was adding anything truly necessary to the tale. In the "after" sections, the two main characters go about their separate lives until a disaster occurs in the last third of the book. Kalanthe is busy meeting a future husband, and Olsa is recruited by a mage to deal with leftover business from the Quest - time that is mostly spent on the road discussing Olsa's future. In both cases, the problems Kalanthe and Olsa are having are solved by other people making incredibly generous offers, resulting in little character growth. By the time the two women were reunited, I didn't particularly care where the relationship was going. There simply weren't enough stakes in this books, personal or otherwise.
All-in-all, this may prove a swoon-worthy read for some, but didn't click with me. I really appreciated the society that the author created and some of the initial setup, but there wasn't enough drive here to make me truly want to see the story through. What few complications were thrown in the path of the romance are swept aside with very handy deus ex machinas, without either of the characters really having to really dig in to overcome the obstacles. Unfortunately, this is a rare read I just can't recommend.