First things first, I need to say a huge thank you to Bookbridgr and to Hodderscape, for allowing me to receive an advanced copy of this novel for review.
'Way Down Dark' is the first book in a brand new young adult science fiction trilogy. The Australia is a ship that left Earth hundreds of years ago after the planet broke down and destroyed itself; first of all by becoming horrendously overpopulated, then through depletion of all fuel sources. Scientists panicked, creating as many ships as they could to stuff full of people and send out into the universe, searching desperately for new hospitable planets.
There are four clans making up life on the Australia; the Bells, the Pale Women, the free people and the Lows. The Bells are rumoured to have been genetically engineered soldiers, but due to a lack of command their strength has depleted to violence for the sake of violence. The Pale Women are extremely religious, living on the very top floor of the Australia and forcing themselves to live completely in darkness as a personal sacrifice dedicated to a higher being. The Lows are the bottom of society, dangerous and angry, but with complete control over a half of the sections of Australia. The free people are free, but as the Lows power grows and they start trying to take more sections their lives become even more hellish than normal.
We follow Chan, a free person struggling with life aboard Australia; she's only a young teenage girl, and she's attempting to deal with the death of her mother while also trying to keep promises that she made to a dead person. When Chan's mother died, she made her promise two things; be selfish, and stay alive. But as the Lows start invading her section of Australia, and she sees people she knows and works with being tortured in the most terrible ways, Chan needs to struggle with her promises and her own sense of what is right and wrong.
'Way Down Dark' is split into three parts, and each of them progress the story in rapidly different directions, so I'm going to focus on the first part to avoid giving any spoilers to the later sections. Just know that this novel is a lot more than it seems at first glance, and if you think the wrap-up I've given above is covering even a quarter of the plot, you'll be completely mistaken.
I really enjoyed 'Way Down Dark'. I haven't read many good space novels, because normally my brain cannot comprehend everything that's going on and so I give up quite early, but I'm glad I persevered with this one because it definitely ended up surprising me. As Chan is such a young character, I definitely felt sympathetic towards her for everything that she was experiencing on the Australia, but it was very cleverly written. One of the best things to include in this kind of novel is character development, and we really do get that in the bucket-load; Chan struggles with her morals and her personal beliefs because of the promise she made to her mother, so we have a lot of brilliant sections where she's utterly and completely torn between two choices. There are times when Chan annoys me, it's true; most characters do at one point or another! But because we have some set-up for her character at the very start of the novel it's very easy to follow through her thought processes, so everything she decides to do is logical for her and in line with her character.
As well as Chan being a great character, we also have strong characters in the forms of Agatha and Jonah. Both become more focal towards the end of the novel, but I really do feel a kinship towards them even though they weren't as central to the book as Chan was. Agatha is one of Chan's mother's old friends, and we get sections of the novel told from her perspective as she recounts tales from her earlier life on Australia. Her voice is very distinctive, and I actually found myself wanting many more of her chapters; the back story of the ship was just so intriguing, and Chan's mother sounded like she was a menace in childhood, so it would have been great to get more of these excerpts spread throughout.
On the other hand, Jonah doesn't really get much focus at all - he's a companion to the Pale Women, the only male who has ever been accepted into their inner sanctum. He also has great character development, but I'm more excited to see how his character develops over the coming two novels (if his character is indeed involved in them) because I definitely think there's a lot more promise there.
I haven't read any of James Smythe's novels before, but I definitely recommend 'Way Down Dark'. The imagery is effervescent and realistic, with some of the smells he describes feeling so pungent that at points I thought I could taste them in the back of my mouth. However, I do think that there are other novels out there quite similar to this one, most obviously 'Red Rising' by Pierce Brown. I can't compare them too in-depth, as I'm still trying to be careful what I say to avoid spoilers, but just know that if you've read 'Red Rising', this will probably be a book that you will enjoy, but it won't blow you off your feet as much as that one did. If you haven't read 'Red Rising' but are interested in it, I'd definitely tell you to read this one first - it's less fully-blown sci-fi, and the violence is a little bit more understated, so it's more well-suited to fans of the young adult genre.
If you're not great at seeing where books are going, and you're looking for something that will shock you and take you on a rollercoaster, this is definitely the book for you. While I enjoyed 'Way Down Dark', I found some of the twists and turns a bit predictable, so I have got my fingers crossed that the second and third installments will do away with the cliched set-ups and be more unique. This is a series that I am going to continue on with - if not for the relaxed writing style and well-formed characters, then for the cliffhanger at the end of the novel - and I'm already anticipating where James will go next...