Way Down Dark by J P Smythe
There’s one truth on Australia: You fight or you die. Usually both.
Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one.
The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.
But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it, Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.
Seventeen-year-old Chan, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to return the Australia to Earth. But doing so would bring her to the attention of the fanatics and the murderers who control life aboard the ship, putting her and everyone she loves in terrible danger.
And a safe return to Earth is by no means certain.
Way Down Dark is the new novel from J P Smythe and I’ll begin with a small admission, I’ve never actually read anything by this particular author. I’m always a little excited/nervous in this situation. Nothing like an unknown quantity to keep you on your toes. Once I had read the book blurb I was more than a little intrigued. When it comes to choosing books to read I rely heavily on instinct. Turns out my gut has served me well in this case, Way Down Dark is absolutely great.
Chan is a fascinating character. Driven by an iron determination, she refuses to let anyone, or anything, get in her way. Life on Australia is brutal and often violent, but she just steadfastly refuses to let it end her. She can see that the society she lives in is devouring itself from within. Having promised her dying mother that she would stay safe she finds it increasingly difficult to just stand by and do nothing. Her world is falling apart and Chan realises that inaction is no longer an option.
Australia is a world full of factions and cults. All of them are trying to carve out their own little fiefdoms, and if that means destroying the others in the process then so be it. The Lows are driven by their need to consume and conquer. The Bells are the epitome of violence and warfare, while The Pale Women are a more spiritual bunch. Chan has to try and outsmart everyone, separate friend from foe, and find a way out.
Every hero requires a villain, and for Chan, that villain comes in the form of Rex, Leader of the Lows. Rex is singular of purpose. That purpose is simple, she wants everything. If she can’t have everything, then she is happy to destroy it so no one else can claim it for themselves. Watching Chan and Rex face-off against one another is like watching a battle between light and dark. Both are equally motivated, however Chan is desperate to retain her humanity while Rex is prepared to be far more animalistic.
Smythe’s writing showcases just how adaptable human beings can be. Placed in horrific existence we learn how to adapt and attempt to overcome. It is amazing how a life viewed as nightmarish from outside can easily become the norm for the person who is living it. Chan doesn’t know anything other than life on Australia. For her, violence and death are day to day occurrences. She has had it drilled into her from a young age. You keep your head down, ignore everyone else, and look after number one. Selfishness is just how you get by.
There is an air of dark claustrophobia woven through the entire narrative. Australia is well past its best, and you get the sense everything is falling apart or covered in a layer of grime. The denizens of the ship almost live on top of one another, and there are few places where anyone can be truly alone. It would be easy for this story to devolve into something potentially bleak and depressing but it doesn’t. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some bleak moments, but watching Chan overcome them is life affirming. She is such a resilient character you find yourself willing her onwards.
Way Down Dark is just shy of three hundred pages long and I rattled through it in a couple of sittings. I’ll be honest, I had difficulty putting it down. There is something properly addictive about this story. I didn’t want it to end, the characters and plot are so well executed. This is a wonderful example of young adult fiction. In fact, no wait a second, that’s not entirely accurate. Way Down Dark is a wonderful example of fiction full stop. This novel has some brilliant twists and turns. It’s great watching Chan as she breaks with convention and reinvents herself. Turning away from the society she doesn’t really understand and choosing to find her own way.
I always get a bit of a buzz when I read an author’s work for the first time and it just immediately clicks with me. Smythe is writing exactly the sort of fiction that I love to devour. There is a truly spectacular WTF moment, you’ll know it when you see it, that caught me completely unaware. The ending of the novel will no doubt leave you hungry for more. If you’re a science fiction fan and are looking for something with a distinctly tribal flavour, then I strongly recommend you seek this book out. The best news is that this is only part one of a trilogy so I can relax knowing that I’ll get to discover what happens next*.
Way Down Dark is published by Hodder and is available now. Highly recommended.
*Good news everyone, I harassed the author recently on Twitter and he reckons book 2 will likely be out next February.