(2015) Simon Morden, Gollancz, £14.99, trdpbk, 352pp, ISBN 978-1-473-21145-2
Mary is a teenaged black girl, on probation for theft, working in a cleaning crew on the London Underground in 2012. Dalip is a young man studious Sikh man, training to become an engineer working on replacing train track nearby with Stanislav, a middle aged man who doesn’t talk about his past. When the underground erupts in a firestorm, these three along with four other women from the cleaning crew, become trapped with the only way out being a door that leads to a sea. And from the sea leads to the place called Down, which appears as a door to people in London in times of desperation, with what appears to be no way back home.
This novel has been talked about in the context of ‘portal fantasy’, i.e. the character travels through a portal to a different world and we can all think of examples of this. The novel itself has a reference to Alice Through the Looking Glass, but thankfully does not keep referring to something else on every page. However to me, this story is attempting to revitalise portal fantasy by stripping it down. Let me explain.
When the cast arrive in the world, there is not any bustling village or gleaming city. The first indications that something is seriously odd about this world is when they see the sea monster and when the moon rises. After this, other residents of Down start emerging but in a slow reveal. They are interesting yes, but Morden changes this around by making the focus on the lead characters. The questions of how to survive in the world, wearing an orange boiler suit because it was the only clothing you were wearing when you travelled.
A lot of portal fantasy is about how the characters change the world they find themselves in. Here Down is a place that changes you. It can give you power, force you to change or make you reveal what you really are, but there can be a cost. Mary discovers power but still is faced with her anger, Dalip is forced to fight to survive and Stanislav cannot hide from his past any more. This is the sort of novel that is not violent all the way through, but when the scenes of fighting come, they are tense and disturbing.
Another way that the novel plays around with expectations, is how it handles different tropes of fantasy. There is the mysterious mentor figure, the evil queen, the castles. Maps are a form of power and a major drive of the plot, not just a key to the treasure. People may be able to gain powers, but there are still people, who just found themselves in different place. There are no races or species of magical creatures, just humans. This is another example of the way that Morden is going for a back to basics approach, to concentrate on the characters. Admittedly the main three get the majority of the narrative and development, but the concentration helps the story keep it’s focus.
This is the first novel in a series, which normally might be a warning. But it is not overlong and Morden has clearly worked to keep it tight. The world of Down in the novel is intriguing enough that you what to find out more about it and start making up. You want to follow the characters on their journey. I defiantly recommend this novel to anybody who wants to see something new and interesting done with portal fantasy.
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