LONG DARK DUSK - JP Smythe LONG DARK DUSK (Book 2 of the Australia Trilogy)

JP Smythe (james-smythe.com)

Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)

£13.99

Months after the events that brought her and her companions to Earth, Chan Aitch is living in a shanty town built against the inner surface of the wall that now surrounds Washington, D.C. She has, so far, managed to escape detection and recapture and performs odd-jobs for the local fixer, Alala. Fascinated by her new home, Chan has spent some time coming to grips with the planet’s history and, through her trips to the city’s museums, has met Ziegler, an historian and writer for whom Chan is a gold-mine of information. Chan herself has one goal: to discover where the government have taken Mae, the young girl whom she took under her wing in the final days of their time on Australia, to rescue her and to take her somewhere where they will never be found. But this is a strange new world, and she has no access to anything like the resources she could count on aboard Australia. Who, if anyone, can she trust? And where, on the vastness of the continent, should she start?

The middle book of a planned trilogy can often be a strange beast: the set-up has been done in book one, while the big payoff is unlikely to happen before book three. So there are no expectations on the reader’s part when it comes to book two, and each writer has his or her own take, or each story demands a different approach to this central volume. Regular visitors to Reader Dad will have noted my on-again-off-again relationship with the books of JP (James) Smythe, so it should come as no surprise when I say that Long Dark Dusk didn’t really work for me, despite how I felt about Way Down Dark and how excited I still am about Dark Made Dawn.

Picking up several months after Chan’s arrival on Earth, Long Dark Dusk finds her living in the walled city that was once Washington, D.C. This is a much different Earth than the one we live on: environmental disaster has left the planet a dry, hot husk of its former self, air-conditioned, walled cities the only refuge for the relatively small number of humans who have managed to survive the harsh conditions. Through Chan’s eyes, and her interest in where she originally came from, and of why her ancestors wound up in space, Smythe manages to give us a potted history of the apocalypse and the resulting martial and political environment under which the survivors exist.

Chan is driven by a single objective: to find and rescue Mae, and disappear somewhere that they will not be found. Between the knowledge and resources of the mysterious Alala and the cagey Ziegler, she feels she is well on her way to finding the girl, when a double-cross lands her in a facility in the middle of nowhere for “re-programming”. It is this central section of the book that I have problems with. As the author explores many of the themes that his earlier adult novel, The Machine, explored – identity and memory; how one informs the other – the pace of the novel comes to an almost-complete standstill. (You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed The Machine – that’s because I didn’t like it, for various reasons.) It’s undeniably beautifully written, and Smythe uses a number of tricks to distance us from Chan (while still keeping us inside her head), as she becomes distanced from herself, and from the world around her. It’s impossible not to be impressed – notice, for example, the lack of direct speech from Chan – but it feels less like an integral part of the story (I have since been assured by the author that it is) than the output of a challenge the author has set for himself.

As the book moves towards its climax, the pace picks up once again, and Chan finds herself forming a most unlikely alliance that will have repercussions for what is still to come. The story finishes on a high point, which leaves the reader ready for the trilogy’s final volume, next year’s Dark Made Dawn. There are still many unanswered questions, and plenty of action and excitement on the horizon.

As with all of Smythe’s books, Long Dark Dusk is about setting your expectations as a reader. Anyone picking this up expecting more of the same as what we saw in Way Down Dark will, like me, come away somewhat disappointed and, to be honest, I do think that’s what caused most of my problems with the book: faulty expectations. As always, it’s wonderfully written and, aside from the central section, a compelling and often gripping story. Chan continues to be a wonderful narrator, a well-drawn mix of innocence and violence that will keep the reader coming back for more. A solid middle book that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but which keeps us interested enough that we’ll come back for the payoff. Not the best of Smythe’s work, but by no means the worst.

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