Book Review: Way Down Dark
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.
But there might be a way to escape. In order to find it, Chan must head way down into the darkness - a place of buried secrets, long-forgotten lies, and the abandoned bodies of the dead.
Seventeen-year-old Chan, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, 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 return the Australia to Earth. But doing so would bring her to the attention of the fanatics and the murderers who control life aboard the ship, putting her and everyone she loves in terrible danger.
And a safe return to Earth is by no means certain.
I have to make a confession, I first thought this book was about the continent of Australia, there I said it. Boy was I wrong. James Smythe is well known for his science fiction book The Explorer and the recent sequel The Echo. With Way Down Dark, James Smythe ventures into the dangerous territory of Young Adult fiction. For me YA is dangerous, it is a tricky genre to write into perhaps the young folk are even more critical then adults and it definitely takes more than just writing a story with a kid in the lead. James Smythe directly shows with his opening scenes that he knows this, Way Down Dark is a story unlike any others that I have read so far. Yes there are YA book in space, Brenda Cooper's The Creative Fire for example, but they didn't end the was that Way Down Dark did. Actually coming to think of it, Way Down Dark has something of David Ramirez's The Forever Watch in it, pretty amazing. Now lets move on to the story!
The story of Way Down Dark tells the story of the seventeen-year-old girl Chan. She is on board of the Australia, yes not the continent but a space ship that was launched from planet Earth in search for new land to live on. But they haven't found a new planet to colonize yet. (remember this bit). Chan has never known about about Earth she was born aboard the Australian. Over the course of her life and that of her mother life on the environment has changed, a lot. In the beginning of the story you are directly confronted with a very bleak and grim view, which is further build by the fact what happens to Chan's mother. Leaving Chan alone with her mother's friend Agatha. There are only a few places on the Australian that are safe to live on, the biggest area's are claimed by gangs. Dangerous gangs that have mostly reverted back to sort of animalistic behavior, this gang is better know as the Low's, but beside them there are more gangs, not as violent the Lows but they do have their own rules and regulations. Now that Chan is on her own feet, she tries to pick up her way of living once again, working in the arboretum for a little bit of food and barter material. Because with money you wont get anywhere any longer. As I already mentioned society as we know it is no longer existent on the Australia, and you have to trade stuff to get stuff. There is one vivid scene in the beginning of the book where Chan is confronted by this harsh reality. After this there are more events that more and more event that Chan faces that put her in a position in where she realizes this cannot continue any longer and it is time to fight back. This is an important point in the story as now James Smythe starts to slowely reveal what actually has been going on (points that I will for obvious reasons won't tell). Definitely stuff that WILL blow you away guaranteed. If you have read the book already or are busy with the early stages of the book, the truth that is revealed is much more brutal than what you had dared to have guessed. The ending of the book is just as amazing and something that I have been looking with these book, a very nice cliffhanger and you should read this book only for the last chapter. You will be sending a complaint to Chapter 5 for putting you in a position where you just crave the sequel... Yes it really is that good a cliffhanger.
As far as the construction of the story itself goes, James Smythe has cleverly excuted the build up of the storyline itself. The story is sort of divided into two storylines, one that follows the adventures of Chan aboard the Australian and the other that focuses and a personal narration of the best friend of Chan´s mother, Agathe, with this backstory you learn a lot about what has been going on in the earlier years and how Chan came to be Chan. Plus it reveals the fact that the truth always surfaces...
Now what often happens when you have a provocative story is that the characterization suffers underneath it... Luckily for us, James Smythe doesn't let that happen at all, the main protagonist of the story, Chan is kick-ass. She is a young girl and grown up with a lot of problems but has never, how dire the situation might be, let that get the better of her. She always does her best working and tries to look for the better aspects in persons, even though when they are bad, but she does have her limits though. Even though her mother said to be selfish and look out for herself, she would travel to hell and back to rescue an innocent being from the Low's. She is determined and very crafty with a blade. You can definitely feel that Chan has been forced to grow into the girl that she is, because she doesn't know better, but underneath the hardened outer layer she has a certain young-girl innocence, that comes to show in the ending but isn't appreciated...
Concerning the world building, James Smythe did a very good job in showing just how limited the space is on the Australian, yes it is a massive ship but the population is big and there are a lot of hostilities going on with warring gangs and such, so living is tight. The descriptions of the living area´s, the ways of going from different levels really inspire a claustrophobic feeling to the story, added to this comes of course that fact that the spaceship itself floats somewhere in out space and there is no way of the thing...There are no escape pod aboard to escape, you just have to learn to deal with it... if you well.. tough luck.
All of the singular pieces, storyline, characters, world building are top material but they work even better when you take it on the whole, then you see a true amplification of each factor that take the story to a new place. James Smythe convinced me just a few paragraphs in that Way Down Dark was a solid book but proved it double even so with the ending that he wrote, that piece is just top material and for a twist that I haven´t yet encountered. He has already created a terrific storyline for the continuation of the series that will proof to be highly eventful. In the end of the book I was literally shouting and cheering on Chan to succeed, she is a great character who you will adore and who you want to see succeed in her plans. And remember... The truth will always surface.