Down Station by Simon Morden
A small group of commuters and tube workers witness a fiery apocalypse overtaking London. They make their escape through a service tunnel. Reaching a door they step through…and find themselves on a wild shore backed by cliffs and rolling grassland. The way back is blocked. Making their way inland they meet a man dressed in a wolf’s cloak and with wolves by his side. He speaks English and has heard of a place called London – other people have arrived here down the ages – all escaping from a London that is burning. None of them have returned. Except one – who travels between the two worlds at will. The group begin a quest to find this one survivor; the one who holds the key to their return and to the safety of London.
And as they travel this world, meeting mythical and legendary creatures, split between North and South by a mighty river and bordered by The White City and The Crystal Palace they realise they are in a world defined by all the London’s there have ever been.
Reminiscent of Michael Moorcock and Julian May this is a grand and sweeping science fantasy built on the ideas, the legends, the memories of every London there has ever been.
There is always a little frisson of excitement whenever I read an author’s work for the first time. I’ve heard of Simon Morden, but thus far I hadn’t actually read any of his books. Never let it be said that I am not keen to try new things however. Upfront, based on the blurb, things look all good. An apocalyptic event, a series of disparate characters and a brand new world to discover. I was excited at the prospect of a new story to devour. I dived in with gusto.
The question I found that I kept asking was what would I do in the same situation? Separated from everything familiar, unable to connect with family and friends what would you do? The chances of ever getting back to your past life are sat somewhere between slim and non-existent. Would you fight with every fibre of your being to try anything to get home, or would you take the opportunity to start afresh? I’m sure most of you would try to return home, I certainly would, but many of the characters in Down Station don’t have the best lives to begin with. The chance to reinvent yourself, to become someone different, to wipe the slate clean, feels like an opportunity too good to pass up.
Mary is used to being ignored. Raised on the streets of London, she is trying hard to avoid trouble when she finds herself suddenly ripped away from everything she is used to. Her escape from London is more like a rebirth than anything else. All the constraints, the rules and regulations that governed her monotonous existence have fallen away. Mary finally has the opportunity to learn who she really is, the chance to define herself. I love what Morden does here, Mary’s evolution as she embraces her new life perfectly captures the transformation of her entire character.
Dalip comes across as a man trapped between two different cultures. On one hand, there is the tradition and ceremony of his Sikh upbringing. You get the sense that in some respects his religion helps to define him, but also, that he also feels in other respects constrained by it. There is an internal struggle taking place within that is as important as events externally.
The final character who really caught my attention was Stanislav. He is like a closed book. You get hints of a dark history lurking beneath the surface, but no great detail is forthcoming. An enigmatic past doesn’t stop the world of Down from having an effect however. As the plot unfolds Stanislav appears more and more like the living embodiment of pure emotion. His rage, bitterness and anger are almost palpable. Of all those who find themselves in Down, I think Stanislav’s ultimate fate was the most affecting. His journey is horrific and heart-breaking in the same breath.
I love how that in their own way, each of these three characters are running from something. Stanislav from his traumatic past, Mary from constant rules and authority, and Dalip from tradition and the crushing weight of expectation. Is Down a new beginning for each of them or a step closer to damnation?
It almost goes without saying that the existing residents of Down are a suitably mysterious bunch. Mary meets Crows, a curiously cryptic fellow who appears to be up to some grand scheme or another. The only question to uncover, what the nature of that grand scheme is. There is also a strange man who walks with wolves and elsewhere an even stranger geomancer. Both individuals are very interested in the land’s latest arrivals.
I’m mildly obsessive when it comes to all the little details, and I am pleased to report that there has been time taken to properly flesh out the land of Down. There is some splendidly well-crafted world-building going on. For example, wealth a person has is judged by information and knowledge. Maps are a currency, and buildings rise and fall based on the necessity for them. You get a real sense that Morden has created a place where many of the rules are completely different from our own. It is one of the books many highlights, getting to watch as the characters establish how the rules work in this new world.
At first glance, I suppose Down Station could be viewed as a simple tale. This is merely the journey of mismatched people forced to exist against the odds in a place that defies normal logic. It’s only when you delve deeper that you start to appreciate the subtle nuances in Morden’s writing. This is an introspective examination of character and motivation, encased in a shiny fantasy wrapper. I’ll be honest–I loved every page, even when I wasn’t one hundred percent sure exactly what was going on. There is nothing better than a story that challenges you to engage the old grey cells and really makes you think.
This novel is blissful, it feels like the beginning of something grand and expansive. I can only hope that readers will get the opportunity to visit Down again. Sign me up now, I’d be there in a flash. Like the man says “Down is not just a direction, it is a destination”.*
Down Station is published by Gollancz and is available now. Highly recommended.
*In fact I’m calling you out now Gollancz. There had better be a sequel to this book or there will be tears! Take it from me no-one wants to see a shamblingly hirsute Scotsman crying. I can guarantee you that it is not at all pretty.