Calling all authors with plans to ply their darker brands in the young adult market: Way Down Dark is like a lesson in how to bring your fiction to a more sensitive sector without sacrificing the parts that made it remarkable.
The sensational start of J. P. Smythe’s Australia trilogy is to sinister science fiction what Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea series has been to fantasy of the grimdark variety: a nearly seamless segue that doesn’t talk down to its audience or substantially scale back the stuff some say is sure to scare younger readers away. To wit, it doesn’t get a great deal more miserable than this—appropriately given the tone and tenor of Smythe’s other efforts. Consider the fact that Way Down Dark opens on its main character murdering her own mother a macabre case in point.
It was because she had a reputation. Her reputation meant that I was always left alone, because so many others on the ship were scared of her. Only when she became sick did that change. Not that anybody knew what was wrong with her for sure, but there were rumours. Rumours are nearly worse than the truth, because they get out of control. People started looking at me differently, pushing their luck, sizing me up. They wanted to see just how weak she was now, and how weak I was. […] Power is everything on Australia. Power is how they rule; it’s how they take territory, make parts of the ship their own. But, somehow, our section of the ship stayed free. Somehow—and part of me wants to lay the responsibility at my mother’s feet, though I know it can’t all have been her doing—we stayed out of it.
And so a plan is hatched, to keep the three free sections of the ship safe by showing the Lows that Chan and the others under her mother’s purported protection should be taken very seriously indeed.
“Before, the Lows referred to where [these people] lived, not who they were,” but things are dramatically different when Way Down Dark takes place. See, it’s been centuries since the Australia fled a dying earth to make a fresh start in the orbit of a far-distant star, and the promised planet still hasn’t made itself apparent.
Countless generations have come and gone since the ship started drifting, and in the interim, gangs happened. For the unaffiliated, life on the Australia got harder and harder after that; Chan, for her part, pretty much considers it a prison—a prison with its fair share of insidious activities:
It’s not enough that life is scary. We invent other things to be terrified of; to scare the children into staying in line. There are things worse than Lows, we say. The story of the Bell who went insane, who killed an entire section of the ship in the early days; the story of the Nightman, who comes and takes children who wander off while their parents are asleep; the story about when the Pale Women supposedly poisoned the water in the arboretum, killing off all the fish and the water bugs. All of them carry their own warnings, but there’s nothing worse than the Lows. They’re here, and they’re not stories. And we’re right to be scared.
Thus the dark task that falls to Chan: basically a display to keep the Lows at bay. It works, as well. But not for long.
The remainder of Way Down Dark takes place a period of years later, at a pivotal point in the age of the ailing Australia. The prologue’s protagonist is now south of seventeen; her mother’s supposed ghost is long gone; and the Lows—under the leadership of a resentful Rex who represents “chaos, pure and simple”—have grown cojones enough to call Chan’s bluff.
Initially, she resists the encroaching Lows, but Agatha—a friend of her late parent’s, and the closest thing Chan has to family—takes pains to put our protagonist in her place. She’s no chosen one, that’s for sure. She has no particular abilities; no forgotten prophecy to follow; no master to train her in the arts of magic or speculative tech; no-one to support her in any sense other than a frail old lady, and Agatha, in truth, is keener on keeping Chan from harm than saving the several hundred other souls aboard the Australia.
But someone has to do something… don’t they?
“I’m not special,” Chan eventually acquiesces. “I’m really not. Anybody could [do] what I’m doing, but they didn’t. So I am going to. Maybe that’s enough.” And maybe it would be… in a novel by another author. What Chan doesn’t realise, nor should she, is that James Smythe is writing her, and layering weakness upon bleakness is practically his trademark.
That said, though Chan’s situation is certainly sympathetic, and the sickening things she has to do simply to survive extend above and beyond her moment of matricide, so little of Way Down Dark is devoted to developing her character that some readers are sure to struggle with their feelings for its hero.
In large part that’s because Way Down Dark is a short novel with a whole lot of plot to push through. Happily, the action-packed narrative packs a proper punch, a finely-timed wind-up and a terrific twist that serves to make sense of something seemingly insignificant at the same time as preparing the stage for a very different conflict come book two of Smythe’s deceptively ambitious trilogy.
Way Down Dark is also bolstered by a distinct and deftly depicted setting. The Australia is a desperately dangerous place, rife with life in all its exquisite squalor, where unspeakable secrets are kept in every berth, by dint of which readers realise how easily the game Smythe is playing could change. The upstairs/downstairs social structure also factors smartly into the opposition that proves so pivotal to the fiction. Said stairs are long gone, alas—”salvaged” by those in need of materials—leading to a real sense of the Australia as a lived-in ship marked by the scars of its hellish history.
It’s a space, in any case, that I’d plum love to explore some more. Whether or not that’ll happen, given the twist in the tale, I can’t say today. I can say that I’m unbelievably keen to see where the story goes from here, especially if it allows the author to more attentively explore Chan’s character. Here, it’s clear that he’s holding quite a bit of her arc back—too much of it, in truth.
Other than that, Way Down Dark is where it’s at: an exhilarating if dismaying document that succeeds in the same way Smythe’s sinister science fiction has in the past, irrespective of the age of its intended audience.
Way Down Dark is available July 2nd from Hodder & Stoughton.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.