Let’s hear it for freedom.
Seriously: for freedom in all its forms—for the freedom to dream and the freedom to scream; for the freedom to be who we want to be, do what we want to do, love who we like and live the way we might—let’s hear it!
Freedom isn’t just fine, it’s fundamental. We become who we become because of it. But in as much as the freedom to choose may shape us, our choices can come to contain us.
Down Station by Simon Morden is a book about breaking out of the frames we make of these freedoms, and it kicks off with a couple of Londoners losing everything they love—not least said city, which appears to burn to the ground around them in the beginning.
They are Mary, a contrary teenager with anger management issues, and Dalip, a twentysomething Sikh with dreams of being an engineer. Both are working in the tunnels of the subway when the aforementioned catastrophe happens; a catastrophe that would have claimed their lives, in all likelihood, if they hadn’t discovered a door that almost certainly wasn’t there before. “A door that […] more or less disappeared as soon as they closed it,” promptly depositing them in a landscape that looks absolutely natural—except, I suppose, for the sea-serpent, the wyvern in the sky, and the massive moon Mary and Dalip see it silhouetted against.
“Whoever first named it, named it right. Down is where we are,” a man called Crows—another escapee from the world as we know it—explains a little later. “It is both a destination and a direction, it is how we fall and where we land.” And in Down, our everyman protagonists must discover themselves all over again if they’re to stand a chance of surviving in a world which in a real way responds to their behaviour.
For Mary, an urban girl entirely out of her element, that’s scary: “There were no rules. No one telling her what to do. No one to make her do anything. […] What she was feeling was fear.” For Dalip, it’s a little different:
Almost his every waking moment had been planned, since he’d been old enough to remember. This school, that club, a friend’s house, the gurdwara, plays and concerts and recitals and family, so much family: brothers and sisters and cousins and second cousins and uncles and aunts. The thought that he might be free of all that was… intoxicating. Even if it was just for a while, before someone was able to show him the way home.
Alas, there are no someones coming. There’s just Mary, Dalip, a few disappointingly underdeveloped supporting characters—here’s looking at you, Mama and Stanislav—and the diabolical denizens of Down, one of whom generously tells our gang about the geomancer. Apparently, maps are the currency of this world most weird, and the geomancer makes them, so if anyone hereabouts can help them get home, it’s her.
That’s what a man made of wolves says, anyway. Me, I’d struggle to trust a man made of wolves, but this lot are desperate, I guess. And they only grow more so when—what do you know?—they’re attacked on the path to the geomancer’s castle. By, ah… a man made of wolves.
Down Station is a little predictable, at points, but the Philip K. Dick Award-winning author of the marvelous Metrozone novels and late of the greatly underrated Arcanum keeps the pace at such a brisk pitch that you only notice the lows when they’re over. In the intervening period, you’ve had such fantastic fun—think The Wizard of Oz with lashings of Lost—that it’s easy to overlook the telegraphed turns the tale takes on the way to its eventual destination: a cracking battle between a much-changed Mary and a certain skyborn beast.
To wit, in terms of plot and pace, Morden’s ninth novel is tight and taut—and I’d argue that its relative brevity is a boon to boot. At approximately 300 pages, Down Station is a ways off wearing out its welcome when the literary kitchen closes its doors; though the portion sizes might be on the slight side, chef serves up a satisfying three-course meal here, leaving readers stuffed enough, but not so full that they won’t have an appetite for more when it’s over. And in case you weren’t aware, there will be more, folks: The White City beckons, and after that… why, this whimsical world is Morden’s oyster.
Fingers crossed that he cracks the surviving secondary characters in The Books of Down yet ahead. Mary and Dalip ably showcase the transformative nature of choice and change I touched on at the top, but Dalip’s impromptu instructor is so secretive he’s hard to get a handle on, Mary’s guardian angel is wasted in spite of a strong start, and although he shines sometimes, I expected much more of Crows, not least because he’s such a central element of Blacksheep’s exceptional cover art.
Then again, the Londoners above aren’t friends or enemies yet—they’re “just a bunch of people thrown together by the fact that [they] didn’t die,” so there’s hope for these folks, especially here, where they’re free of “their hopes and dreams, their fears and nightmares, the past they’d lived and the future they were destined to live.” To paraphrase what might as well be the mantra of this narrative, it’s what they do now that counts. Similarly, what Simon Morden does with The White City, now that he’s introduced it so succinctly, will be what matters when The Books of Down are done.
Down Station is available now in the UK from Gollancz.
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 lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.