“After I helped to kill my mother, I had to burn her body.”
Hell of a brutal first line, and a clear signal of what to expect from J.P. Smythe’s 2015 young adult novel Way Down Dark: brutality, hardship, and the cold hard facts of a violent life.
Way Down Dark was stamped post-apocalyptic in the book’s marketing, but the label is almost a technicality. The conditions on the ship where it is set are apocalyptic, desperate, and violent, but Way Down Dark was more Non-Stop than The Stand. The Earth has been destroyed, and Australia is one of the ships that managed to escape in search of a new home. But hundreds of years have passed since, and the (roughly) three generations living there now have never seen the Earth, or spoken to someone who has. The Earth is a story, a fable, a mantra that they repeat to themselves to make sense of their lives.
Stories, and how telling them can shape our lives for better or for worse, is one of Way Down Dark‘s most prominent themes, though it was made prominent in such a way as to occasionally feel like a themehammer. Still, the message appeals:
“Everything on Australia revolves around stories. They’re all we have to entertain us; and all we’ve got to keep the little bits of who we were before we left Earth alive. We’re told them from the moment that we’re born, and we keep them alive until the day that we die. We create them, and we destroy them. The stories keep us sage, and they keep us scared. Sometimes, it seems like you need one to feed the other” (25).
For the first 150 pages I struggled with suspension of disbelief: not about the ship or the tech (can you really make batteries out of apples? whoa), but the obssession with and knowledge of Earth in a teenage girl—our protagonist Chan—born so many generations post-Earth. My instinct said she should have taken more about this spaceship, shitty as it was, for granted. What comparison does she have? Outside of a story of a story of a story? These people have been on this ship for hundreds of years. Collapsing spaceship society is the new black. Would she really dream of Earth so concretely? Would she really see her own world so clearly, imbedded in it as she is? Had the stories of Earth been presented as stories, as fairy tales with dubious grounding in reality and pretty fucking hard to believe considering, it wouldn’t have been a stumbling block. From this angle, Way Down Dark wasn’t Non-Stop enough.
While the first 150 pages gripped me enough to keep me reading, they were a little ho-hum, a little lacking in nuance. Story this, story that. Violence this, teenage girl that. I had been hoping for a twist, but where was the foreshadowing? Where were the hints that all was not what it seemed? Enter page 151 and BAM! ALL WAS NOT WHAT IT SEEMED! The prose fled before me at a breakneck pace as I rushed to keep up with the new paradigm, grinning at how obvious the twist should have been from a single but loud hint, excited to see what would happen next, and pleased that things were turning out so well after all.
Extra points go to Smythe for avoiding the Chosen One trope so popular in young-adult fronted SFF. People tell Chan she’s not special so often, it starts to feel like a bit of a joke. But the point is a fair one: “I’m not special…that’s right. I’m really not. Anybody could have done what I’m doing, but they didn’t. … Maybe that’s enough” (203). Extra extra points go to Smythe for centering this story around women—all powerful women, and all very different.
Way Down Dark isn’t a perfect book, and I often felt like it could have used less black-on-white, more subtelty, been less heavy-handed about its goals and messages. But the twist caught me by surprise in the most satisfying way and rounded out much of what had been missing during its first half. I started Way Down Dark thinking I wasn’t going to continue with the trilogy, and I finished barking and jittering for the next installment.
Also: Favorite book cover of 2015.
Seven out of ten glass-studded maces.
PS The sequel, Long Dark Dusk is, according to amazon, coming out April 2016. Great cover. But don’t read the blurb if you want to avoid spoilers for Way Down Dark.
Where I got it: Sent by the publisher for review