Way Down Dark | J.P. Smythe | 2015, Pb 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 288p | Review copy | Buy the book
Australia is an enormous starship, packed full of decks and quarters, an arboretum lodged down the centre, which is carrying the descendants of Earth’s survivors deep into unknown space. Chan, a 17-year-old girl, is now alone. Her mother is dead, killed in a way that Chan will live with for always, a great leader in need of dying a great death. Now, with only her mother’s friend Agatha to watch over her from a distance, Chan must lie alone in her tiny cabin, separated from the next by just a curtain, and listen to the night sounds of Australia. And they are fearsome sounds. The Lows have left their area of the ship, so close to the Pit, and are taking over Australia bit by bit. No lives are safe from their knives, their tattooed and scarred grasp, their sharpened teeth. But Chan is her mother’s daughter, a warrior in the making, and, as the Lows come closer, Chan looks to see who she can save, clambering the length and width of Australia, rescuing the vulnerable, listening to the wisdom of Agatha as she goes, learning the history of this astonishing vessel that carries them ever deeper into space.
J.P. (aka James) Smythe is an author that, quite frankly, I cannot get enough of. I can’t think of another who plays such expert games with the genres that I love, testing and teasing them, creating the most imaginative scenarios and characters, bringing the most thoughtful, big ideas to life. Sometimes he makes me work, he often takes me into black sadness, but the rewards are great. He always makes me wonder, showing what may happen when strong individuals are placed in the most extreme of circumstances, emotional and physical. Dark space – for the body and mind. Way Down Dark, the opener of a trilogy, is James’s first Young Adult novel and when I heard about it I was intrigued and – as always – desperate to read it. I wondered how the bleakness of Smythian Science Fiction would carry into the Young Adult sphere. But I knew it would be good and it is even better than that.
There are lots of reasons why Way Down Dark is as good as it is. First off, there is Chan. I loved her. I’m not a big reader of YA these days – I know what I was like as a teenager and I prefer to steer clear – but Chan is someone I would like to spend a lot of time with. She is a disturbed teen but as the novel goes on she puts it to good use. She has a cause to fight for. I don’t like to compare books but she really does appeal to me in the same way that Katniss Everdeen does. There’s no romance here – life is too short. What we do have is a character growing into herself, learning about the environment around her and taking us with her, through every last bit of this ship.
The ship itself is a wonder, an arena where evil meets goodness and there’s everything to play for. There is an organic feel to it, its life force being sucked away by the monstrous Lows. It is almost biblical – religious figures haunt the roof levels of Australia while the condemned prowl through its depths. The middle ground – the arboretum, the sustainer of life – is vulnerable. The Pit, at the bottom, is foul indeed.
The writing is fantastic. All of James’s books are well-written and the standard here is as high as anything he’s written before. There are little moments in the novel that make you sit up with a jolt. One of those for me was the description of the child dropping dolls over the stairwell, letting them go, mimicking the sound of the screams people make as they fall into the Pit. Nobody stirs. It’s a sound that’s all too familiar. There are some shocking twists, it is such a fun book to read as you wonder what you might discover next. My sole complaint is that I wish it were longer. I’d read much, much more of this. Violent, bleak, dark as pitch and downright exhilarating, I didn’t want it to end.
Way Down Dark is clearly the first part of a trilogy and it fulfils that role. But it is also a well-contained story in its own right, right up until the point when everything is thrown in the air and you find yourself desperate for part two. There is so much that James Smythe can do with this world, environment, characters that he’s created and I know full well that I will love where he takes us. My favourite novel by James Smythe has been, for quite some time, The Testimony – this is in fact one of my favourite novels – but I have a feeling that the completed Australia trilogy will take it on and I’m not taking bets on the winner. Way Down Dark might be labelled a Young Adult novel but I felt that it was just as effectively targeted to me (a Youngish Adult) and I’d encourage all enjoyers of science fiction to dive in.