Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one.
This is a hell where no one can hide.
The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.
This is a ship of death, of murderers and cults and gangs.
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.
This is Australia.
James P. Smythe is award-winning SF author, whose previous works came highly recommended by many of my SFF blogging friends. And while I always meant to read his books, I never got around to it, as I so often don’t these days. But with his first YA novel I decided I had to get in on the action and see whether I’d love his writing as much as so many of my friends do. After reading Way Down Dark the answer is a resounding yes. Chan’s tale is brilliant and the setting of the Australia was breathtaking. There is a huge twist in the second half of the book. It is hard to talk too much about the plot without giving spoilers so I will focus on the characters and the setting.
The tone of the novel is set in the starting sentence of Chan’s narration, in which Chan confesses to helping kill her mother. It’s quite an entrance and Chan starts as she means to go on. She is tough and self-sufficient, a hard nut, who has to suppress her more humane instincts to survive in the hellhole that is the Australia. For me it was this inner struggle between her survival instincts and her humanity that made Chan’s development in the early part of the book stand out. Once she lets her mother’s admonitions to be selfish and survive go, she truly comes into her own and becomes the leader she was meant to be. It is in her bonds to those closest to her – Agatha, Mae, and Jonah – that we see her development clearest, especially in her attitude towards Agatha.
Agatha is akin to a grandmother figure to Chan and the one alternative point of view we get throughout the novel. Her’s is a flashback narrative in which Chan is told about her true parentage and how Agatha and Riadne, Chan’s mother, got to know each other. The somewhat terse relationship between Chan and Agatha is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. The two other important characters, Jonah and Mae, are a little older and younger than Chan respectively, and they provide some interesting interactions for Chan. I loved that there wasn’t an actual romance in the narrative; though Smythe certainly teases the possibility of it, Chan is just too busy surviving to think about love and flirting in more than passing.
While I absolutely enjoyed the characters and the plot, the setting aboard the Australia is crucial to the book and an absolutely slam-dunk for me. The atmosphere of this enclosed, isolated, pressure cooker of a ship is electric and fascinating. While in the main narrative we see the total breakdown of society on the Australia, in Agatha’s reminiscences we see how the society developed into its various factions and classes. I loved the differences between the Lows, the Bells, the Pale Women and the Free People. They were each clearly a reflection of our own current society, but magnified into almost a stereotype. Smythe has also considered the economics and ecological realities of such a closed system as the Australia. There is nothing coming in or going out, so trade relies on barter and everything is recycled or dumped into the pit. Foodstuffs are either grown in the Arboretum – providing the necessary oxygen in passing – or processed from bugs into some sort of protein goop.
Way Down Dark is wonderfully written, with a fast pace and fantastic action. Smythe also is very deliberate in choosing his names: the Australia, Riadne, Rex, Jonah—they all have added connotations, beyond the obvious. This may have been my first Smythe book, but it certainly won’t be my last as I absolutely adored it. Way Down Dark is one of my favourite YA books of the year so far. On the Australia you fight or you die, but surviving Australia doesn’t mean Chan will be safe in the next book. I can’t wait for book two, Long Dark Dusk. If you haven’t yet picked up James P Smythe’s first YA foray, you should run, not walk, to the nearest bookstore and get yourself a copy of Way Down Dark asap.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.