A century after climate change and natural disasters flooded the earth, a sixteen-year-old British Muslim girl is about to have her world shattered. Leyla McQueen’s father has been languishing in prison ever since the government accused him of causing “seasickness,” a depression-like illness that usually ends in the suffering taking their life. All Leyla wants is his freedom, but her numerous inquiries to the police have been rebuffed. In a last ditch effort, she signs up to race her submersible in the London Marathon. Winners can ask for any boon from the Prime Minister, and they are always granted. So when she wins, Leyla is devastated to have her request for her father’s return denied at the behest of the sinister Captain Sebastian.
Soon, Leyla is forced to flee London. The Blackwatch, the government’s unstoppable security force, is after her. Her only companion is Ari, an inscrutable boy with a fierce streak sent by Leyla’s grandfather to protect her on her journey. The two teens clash as their needs and interests conflict, but the more she learns about him the less stable her reality becomes. When the truth becomes a lie, secrets can launch a revolution. Will Leyla lead the charge or be crushed by her enemies before the fighting even begins?
Since time immemorial, the main plot of many of young adult speculative fiction novels has frequently revolved around a corrupt government oppressing its people. That the dystopian trend has such a grip on YA should be no surprise no one who has paid even the slightest bit of attention to the real world, particularly in the last two decades. We have been at war or engaged in military conflicts for as long as any teenager can remember. They have watched adults have cause or worsen economic recessions, the climate crisis, mass shootings, and increasingly intense natural disasters. Meanwhile the Millennial adults writing these books witnessed first hand the death of the American dream and discovered that much of what older generations told us was a fabrication, the whitewashing of the truth and the mythologizing of the past.
Combine angry, disappointed writers with angry, resistance-minded young adult readers and you get the YA dystopia takeover. The teen protagonist is caught between violent rebels and a brutal dictatorship, with an unlikely ally who will probably eventually become a romantic partner. A family member’s life will be threatened or taken and the person they care about the most will betray them. The only way to save themselves is to bring down the government, or at least expose its darkest secrets to the public. Sometimes these stories are set in the near future or on distant future worlds, sometimes in fantasy lands or isolated kingdoms. Sometimes the dystopian elements are secondary to the science fiction or fantasy elements, other times they’re the main feature. No matter what, fighting fascism and demanding the truth bind these stories together.
Which brings us to London Shah’s The Light at the Bottom of the World. Still waters run deep with this novel. At first Shah floats at the surface, relying heavily on YA dystopian tropes and stock character traits. But once Leyla and Ari head out into the underwater wilderness, we start to see the hidden depths of Shah’s intentions.
Like the best speculative fiction, Leyla’s story both stands on its own as an exciting adventure and acts as a commentary on the current state of the real world. In the novel, Parliament spends exorbitant sums on maintaining Old World architecture and traditions. Famous buildings from before the flood may be covered in algae and anemones, but they stand nonetheless. They are at once harmless relics and vital ties to their past. Without the physical reminders of their culture and history, can they even call themselves British? What is a national identity when the land no longer exists? How long can you hold onto the past before it becomes a crutch or a shackle?
Big Ben and Brighton Pier root Britons to their history, while Anthropoids force them to confront their future. Created before the worst of the flooding, Anthropoids are genetically enhanced humans that can breathe and survive in the water without the protection of domes and submarines. As far as Leyla knows, they’re bloodthirsty beasts, more animal than human. For years the government has battled the creatures and defended its people against their monstrous attacks. Anthropoids were supposed to be the next stage in human evolution, but to most Brits they are a reminder of the consequences of meddling with change and veering too far from the tried and true.
What Leyla eventually realizes is that innovation is dangerous not because it breaks from tradition but because it redistributes power. Her fellow citizens don’t want to learn to thrive underwater and make the best of their new world but to cling to the old ways even when it seems counter-intuitive. And if that means slaughtering Anthropoids and propping up collapsing architecture, then so be it.
The two biggest draws for the first book in Shah’s new series are setting and characters. Shah is a remarkable worldbuilder, with a keen sense of when and how much information to parcel out. Underwater London is both familiar and fantastical, comfortable and discomfiting. The farther Leyla and Ari travel from the city, the stranger and more dangerous the sea and its inhabitants become. Our heroes are, like the setting, both recognizable and strange. Ari is more than just the brooding love interest he seems to be. Like most teenagers, Leyla believes she’s bold and daring but is really reckless and impulsive. But she always acts with honorable intentions.
This may be London Shah’s debut novel, but it sparkles with skill. With her cast of intriguing characters, Shah deftly explores complex situations and ideas. The Light at the Bottom of the World is the first young adult science fiction novel with a British Muslim main character (Leyla is of Afghan and Pashtun heritage), but I sure hope it’s not the last.
The Light at the Bottom of the World is available from Disney-Hyperion.
Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.