(2016) J. P. Smythe, Hodder, £13.99, trdpbk, 359pp, ISBN 978-1-444-79637-7
This book is the second part of the 'Australia Trilogy', a juvenile SF series by Londoner James Smythe. The first part, Way Down Dark, was extremely impressive: fast paced, inventive and full of unexpected twists with strong characters and an engaging, powerful writing style. (Editorial note: If you have not yet read Way Down Dark then do not continue with this review if you wish to avoid spoilers.)
Does Smythe deliver with the follow up, though? Broadly, though the energy of the previous novel is hard to sustain and the pace of the sequel flags in places. That was inevitable though – Way Down Dark was a rollercoaster, and Long Dark Dusk is the story’s flagging middle, catching its breath before the concluding episode. Which is not to say it is action-free, though; the body count remains high and there are plenty of new characters, new twists and new ideas to ensure fans of the first book will not be disappointed.
The basic premise (all from the opening book) is that a bunch of people in a starship they believe is on an interstellar voyage heading for a new life away from a disintegrating world have to deal with their uneasy society’s rapid descent into anarchy. The hero, Chan (female), must keep her humanity as the rest of the ship turns feral, then find a way to save the people she cares about even though the ship is falling apart. But Rex, the leader of the barbaric Lows who seem intent on destroying the ship, stands in her way. Then Chan discovers that the ship is actually a prison ship, orbiting the Earth, and she finds a way to get the prisoners back home…
…which is where the second book starts. The prisoners are all taken away for memory wiping, indoctrination and rehabilitation, but Chan escapes and lives a marginal life in the docks at the edge of the walled city that is now Washington DC. Environmental degradation and economic collapse has forced Earth’s remaining population into walled enclaves like Washington and Chan discovers that in many ways Washington is very like the prison ship she came from. She makes new friends, gets betrayed a few times, finds old friends (and foes) and, intriguingly, has subtly different relationships with them. Oh and lots of people die.
The driver is Chan’s search for Mae, a child she protected in the prison ship Australia and has now lost in Washington. As an impetus for the novel it is not as convincing as the sheer survival urge of the first book, and so the follow up sometimes loses focus. Chan makes some ambivalent and surprising choices, too (largely surrounding Rex, who makes a welcome return), which make her less sympathetic than the morally consistent character she was in the opener. But there are some great new villains, and hints at more.
If you have read the first book, you’ll want to read this one. And you, like me, will be looking forward to the concluding episode. But there is no point in reading this unless you have read Way Down Dark first.
See also Jonathan's take on Long Dark Dusk.
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