Book Review: Way Down Dark by J.P. Smythe
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Australia Trilogy
Publisher: Quercus (October 4, 2016)
Length: 288 pages
Not knowing anything about Way Down Dark before I started, boy was I in for a surprise. Somehow, I’d gotten it into my head based on the series title that this would be a post-apocalyptic dystopian set Down Under—but no, the novel is actually a generation ship story taking place on an interstellar space vessel called the Australia. In fact, the name of the ship itself is significant and made one of the plot twists later on in the book very obvious, and therein lies one of my main problems with this novel: too many predictable developments and conflicts. That said, I really enjoyed myself. There were still plenty of unique and interesting dynamics emerging within the main storyline—laudable, especially for a Young Adult novel—and if I had expected a little too much from it, well, that is entirely my own fault.
Way Down Dark begins the way many generation ship stories start—with descriptions of a mass exodus from Earth, whose living conditions are no longer suitable for large populations of humans for whatever reason. It is a tale seventeen-year-old Chan knows well, having been passed on for generations onboard the starship Australia where she lives. One day they will find a new home, but until then, our protagonist and thousands of others remain packed within the crowded berths and decks, trapped in a hellish existence filled with danger and violence. Long ago, the ship’s occupants divided themselves, and now a savage group called the “Lows” have become a persistent threat, venturing out of their own territory near the Pit to invade and take over other areas of Australia. One thing holding them back from attacking Chan’s home in the Arboretum had been her mother Riadne, a well-respected woman rumored to have fearsome, mystical powers. But now Riadne is dead, and Chan is left alone with the truth of how she died, along with a deathbed promise to her mother to keep her head down, be selfish, and stay alive.
However, ignoring the suffering of others is something Chan simply cannot do. Before long, our protagonist is fighting back against the roving groups of Lows and rescuing the helpless victims of their cruelty, much to the chagrin of Agatha, a family friend who has sworn to Riadne to watch over her daughter. Chan saves those she can, scrambling up and down the ship to retrieve the vulnerable, bringing them to a safe haven where they can be hidden and protected. Then one day, she makes a remarkable discovery, learning about a possible way to return to Earth. Unfortunately though, this just increases the tensions on the ship, elevating the brutality and violence in the gangs of murderous fanatics. As the situation reaches its boiling point, Chan and her allies desperately attempt to uncover the secrets of Australia for a possible solution to their problem, for resources are fast running out and when that happens their refuge will succumb to the enemy.
Crossover YA is a pretty hot category these days, with its lucrative appeal to both adult and young adult audiences, and at first, I actually thought this was what J.P. Smythe had intended for Way Down Dark. Almost immediately upon starting the book, however, I had to alter those initial expectations and place it firmly on the younger end of the spectrum. Namely, the narrative lacks a certain level of complexity, glossing over details and simplifying character motives and personalities. While this is no more and no less than a lot of YA on the market, I thought the book could have taken its ideas much farther with its potential. Instead, I got pretty much what was to be expected—which isn’t a bad thing, just slightly disappointing.
Take Chan, for instance—she’s strong, willful, and independent. When Riadne dies, she makes her daughter promise that she will stay of trouble and not draw any attention to herself, because making waves and trying to be a hero is a good way to get yourself killed on Australia. What would have been really surprising is if Chan had actually listened to her mother, but of course underneath that sharp and cynical exterior is a heart of gold, and Chan can no more help running around rescuing children than she can help being a badass (though for all her bravado, she’s still a naïve teenager, making a mistake later in the story that I saw coming a mile away).
There’s little exploration into how our protagonist became this way though, just as there’s little in the way of explanation for how things got to be the way they were aboard the ship. What actually happened on Earth to warrant the need for ships like the Australia? And once my suspicions about the ship’s history proved true, I couldn’t help but wonder: What was the point? And how is it that situation deteriorated so badly? As wild, inhuman, and destructive as the Lows are, they were nonetheless able to set up a rudimentary form of social hierarchy, so why couldn’t the regular folk have done the same and set up leaders, fighters, protectors, etc.? In fact, how did the Lows even get to the point of losing all semblance of their humanity and decency?
Granted, I probably would have had a better time with the story if I hadn’t been poking around its weak spots so much, and I’m sure there will be explanations coming down the road given the big reveal in the last chapter and the epilogue. Still, just be forewarned, there will be many questions and not enough satisfactory answers, at least not in this first installment. Ultimately, Way Down Dark could have done a lot more, but for a first of a trilogy, it is not a bad start. I think part of the problem is that I went in hoping for too much, and so for the next book I will know to adjust my expectations accordingly. After all, things did end on one hell of a cliffhanger, and I absolutely want to find out what happens next.