Stories are important in JP Smythe’s latest novel, Way Down Dark. They are miniscule echoes of what once were on board Australia – a spaceship that left a barren Earth centuries ago to look for a new home, but was unable to find one.
The desperation is evident, and immediately you are thrust into the action with Chan, a teenage girl who must hold her own among frenzied, violent gangs after her mother dies.
It’s a disorientating opener, but Smythe has done well to paint such a forlorn, dystopian world, and this is where the narrative really shines, as it’s easy to imagine climbing, breathing, smelling and feeling the ship in its entirety.
The imagery Smythe instils is excellent, but the bleak scenes are heavily contrasted by drawn-out fights that are undescriptive and stall the flow of the narrative. You’d expect more when the idea of ‘every fight is a battle for survival’ is saturated throughout.
As the narrator, Chan too is an obstacle for an intelligible plot, as she is simply too blunt and impatient. She does not provide any logical reasoning behind her decisions other than because she serves as a moral compass against all the barbaric savagery.
However, it is Chan’s mysterious relationship and dynamic with her quasi-guardian Agatha that helps to drive the story along. Agatha is a window into the past and present – an eye-opener into the real dangers and truths of a society that has lost its way. But she does not serve as a deus ex machina – she doesn’t spend all her time saving Chan.
Still, the Australia series could prove to be unmissable. The ideas are there and set up the next book well, it’s just that, too frequently, Smythe’s brusque writing acts as a discord.