|WAY DOWN DARK (Book 1 of The Australia Trilogy)
J. P. Smythe (james-smythe.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (hodder.co.uk)
When Chan Aitch’s mother dies, she leaves a gaping hole in the so-called power structure aboard the Australia. Chan is left to pick up the pieces, and attempt to defend the part of the ship previously controlled by her mother against the Lows, who are set on taking complete control at the cost of the lives of anyone who does not believe in their extreme philosophy. But the Australia holds many secrets, from Chan herself, and from the rest of the people aboard, secrets that will call into question the very reason for their existence. As violence threatens to consume the entire ship, Chan realises that there may be a way to escape, and to save the ship’s innocents in the process.
With his latest novel, Way Down Dark, James Smythe moves into the realms of Young Adult fiction, though this is like no YA fiction that you’ve seen before – as dark as the title suggests, this is an intense and frightening novel with more than a little adult appeal.
Set in a far future, Way Down Dark tells the story of a small portion of the human race sent into space after catastrophic events have made the Earth all but inhabitable. Their mission, several hundred years and many generations later, is to find a habitable planet, and rebuild civilisation from the ground up. Their home for all that time, the giant spaceship Australia, a sort of Mega-City One Block-in-space.
When we encounter Chan and the Australia, we find ourselves on board a ship that is the very definition of “run down” – lights don’t work; air and water processing systems are patchy; and the floor of the towering structure is buried under hundreds of years of filth and refuse and the bodies of those who have died during the ship’s long journey. Imagining the worst possible scenario, Smythe gives us a population that has split into a number of distinct groups. On one side are those struggling to survive; on the other, the Lows, tattooed and maimed madmen and –women who want control of the whole ship whatever the cost. Aloof from (and quite literally above) both groups are the mysterious Pale Women, a semi-religious cult who seem to have plans for Chan.
From the outset, the tension is palpable, and Smythe succeeds in making us feel claustrophobic despite the size of the ship in which Chan is imprisoned. Chan is the perfect guide for our journey into this strange new place: she is deeply conflicted and still mourning the loss of her mother, but manages to find the strength to stand up to the constant advances of the Lows into the territory that she has inherited. There are several detours into the head of Agatha, her mother’s friend and a guardian angel of sorts for the girl who she first saved many years earlier, which gives us a look at Chan’s family history, and a better understanding of the currently politics of Australia.
Smythe’s latest novel has much to recommend it: his track record in writing gripping, engaging and thought-provoking science fiction; the shift from HarperCollins to Hodder & Stoughton whose own track record with the genre is second to none. But the story itself, and the characters that inhabit it, is, as always, the biggest draw to a Smythe novel. The word “Smythesque” has been bandied about for some time, and there is a definite style, a definite theme, for want of a better word, that sets his novels apart from those of his contemporaries. Unfortunately for Smythe, the reader will always have a set of preconceived notions of what his books should be. Fortunately for the reader, Smythe shows us that he can meet these expectations in many ways, but that he can also surprise us: the novel we think we’re reading as Way Down Dark opens is very different from the novel we find ourselves holding as we close the back cover, and it leaves us crying out for the next instalment of this excellent new trilogy.
Combining elements of Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Mad Max with a dash of Dredd for good measure, Way Down Dark is one of the most original science fiction novels you’re likely to encounter this year. Branded as “Young Adult”, there is a darkness to the story that will appeal to an older audience, showing that Smythe has a good grasp on what makes a story like this truly universal. This is a writer who continues to go from strength to strength and shows no signs of slowing down. If you’re yet to jump on the bandwagon, Way Down Dark is the perfect place to start, and with the second book in the trilogy, Long Dark Dusk, already announced, there is no better time to jump into Chan’s world, and explore the Australia. While it’s not an entirely pleasant journey (the story most definitely lives up to the title’s Dark), this is a book that’s almost impossible to set down once you’ve started reading, and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished.