Down Station | Simon Morden | 2016 | Gollancz | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is the end of the day and the last of the commuters are making their way home on the London Underground while those whose job it is to keep the tube running are at work in its tunnels. The usual banter and complaining is brought to a sudden, violent halt by catastrophe. A firestorm consumes the tunnels, devouring anyone, everything in its path. For just a very few, a door offers hope of survival. They scramble through it, shut it behind them, and find themselves in another place. They are splashing around in cool water, in the shallows of a sea in a place called Down.
A small group of people suddenly and dramatically find themselves removed from the familiar – albeit a familiar in the throes of a cataclysmic event – and dropped into the unknown. Reality has met fantasy and now we must watch as our small group of survivors manage with barely more than the clothes on their backs to provide safety and comfort. They’re an interesting and diverse group, some of whom we get to know better than others. Chief among them is Mary, a young girl with a temper and a criminal record, Dalip, an engineering student and Sikh, and Stanislav, a Bosnian and a tough man with a history. Together they explore the world of Down, or at least a part of it, and learn some of its ways and its mysteries.
Down Station has a fantastic premise and there aren’t words enough for me to describe how utterly gripping its opening pages are. The scene of the underground inferno is set perfectly. We have no idea what’s going on but there’s a feeling that this could be it. And the moment when the group goes from one world to the next, in an instant, is brilliantly loaded with tension and wonder. The descriptions of the world of Down are as evocative and rich as the scenes in the Tube are harrowing and realistic.
The secrets of Down are only slowly and enigmatically and partly revealed but they have an enormous impact on our group of survivors, on the way that they behave and the directions in which they head. Down Station is as much a novel about people as it is about this fantastical world. The characters are each very different from one another, representing a range of cultures, and their relationships are formed through crisis, stress and necessity. It makes for a fascinating tale in the strangest of settings.
I found the first part of Down Station so intriguing and exciting. I love apocalyptic fiction and I must admit that I would have enjoyed much more along the lines of the opening chapters. But once we’re in Down, I couldn’t wait to find out what this world is about. The pace becomes much slower and we’re very thoroughly immersed in a strange place of fantasy that I have to say frightened me rather more than I was expecting. I read very little fantasy and so I was, rather like the characters, taken well out of my comfort zone and I did feel a little lost at times. Nevertheless, Down Station is one of the most intriguing novels I’ve read in a fair while and I doubt I’ll forget it.