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Way Down Dark by J. P. Smythe


There’s one truth on Australia: you fight or you die. Usually both.

Seventeen-year-old Chan’s ancestors left a dying Earth hundreds of years ago, in search of a new home. They never found one. The only life that Chan’s ever known is one of violence, of fighting. Of trying to survive.

Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she keeps her head down and lives quietly, careful not to draw attention to herself amidst the violence and disorder. Until the day she makes an extraordinary discovery – a way to escape the living hell that is Australia, and to return Earth.

But first Chan must head way down into the darkness – a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.
Smythe has described Way Down Dark as “Mad Max on a generation ship”, and that’s a surprisingly useful shorthand description – it certainly explains the Australian motif of the series (although a reveal towards the end of the first book puts yet another spin on the naming of the ship Australia). But how close can a YA novel get to an 18-rated series…?

The answer is disturbingly close. Smythe recently said that he decided how far was too far by going right up to the line where he could imagine doing those things himself, and stopping there; given that Way Down Dark is a brutal, violent tale of survival, that line is pretty far. Mind you, Smythe does show some restraint – he chose to exclude sexual violence from a novel whose protagonist is a seventeen year old woman, which is a relief and an excellent choice. That still leaves a wide range of disturbing, horrific scenes available to him, and Way Down Dark uses that range freely; bloody violence is a frequent reality of the novel, not necessarily in form of combat but also in characters being beaten to death or murdered over minor infractions. Outside violence, Smythe has a number of viscerally awful descriptions of the Pit at the base of the cylinder that forms the bulk of the Australia; that Pit is where all waste – shit, piss, bodies, et cetera – has been dumped. For generations. Smythe lingers disturbingly, almost lovingly, on the Pit when it’s encountered; Way Down Dark builds it up into a hugely grim thing, and eventually puts Chan right into it.

Of course, this isn’t simply a horror story trying to gross the reader out; Way Down Dark has an awful lot more than simple grossness to it, notably (of course) character and plot.

Those two facets of Smythe’s novel are incredibly strongly intertwined; Way Down Dark is about a character deciding to do the right thing not because of a prophecy, or a sign, or even any indication that she should, but just because that’s the choice she makes. As Chan says, “I’m not special… I’m really not. Anybody could have done what I’m doing, but they didn’t. So I am going to. Maybe that’s enough.” (p202-3) That final sentence is the fundamental question of Way Down Dark: is it enough to simply stand up, as no one special, and interpose yourself between victims and attackers? Is it enough to try and do the right thing, while not knowing exactly what that is, what you’re up against, and even why you’re doing it? Smythe doesn’t want to answer the question, but Chan is a fascinating lens through which to ask it; we first meet her killing her already-dying mother, a combination mercy-killing and totemic protection for Chan with her mother’s ghost (or at least the perception thereof). Every moment after that ties into the moments before, building up a picture of who this girl who killed her mother is, why she did so – and what that means; while also developing her from that moment, changing her, rebuilding and refiguring her into a different person but with the same core, an admirable combination of strategies.

In following Chan’s in her battle against the Lows, a Reaver-like gang who are slowly taking over the ship, and her attempts to save the rest of the non-Low population of Australia, we see any number of chaotic events take place, as well as learning an awful lot about the society of a generation ship that has fallen into anarchy; barter and exchange of goods, the power of gangs, the diminishing resources (and what kind of resources people become willing to use) – Smythe has clearly thought about all of these, and behind Way Down Dark squats a whole huge universe of worldbuilding and thought that didn’t make the final cut. That creates a really lean novel; not a moment isn’t vital, simultaneously building Chan’s character (or someone else’s, or both), advancing the plot, and telling us about the world these characters live in; there’s an efficient economy here that science fiction and fantasy writers often lack, instead opting for sprawling grandiosity or extended passages that add little, things Smythe clearly has no interest in as form follows content.

Way Down Dark is one of those novels that simply stands head and shoulders above their competitors, in this case generation-ship novels and teenage dystopias; Smythe has brought the best from both genres and smashed it together, and then twisted, into a dark, grim future with a fantastic protagonist. If you don’t want to know what happens to Chan after the end of Way Down Dark, you’re on your own, because I’m really looking forward to Long Dark Dusk!

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