Monday, October 26, 2015

Down Station - Simon Morden

Down Station is a new fantasy novel by Simon Morden, perhaps best known for his Metrozone series. It follows a small group of people flung through a portal from London, and into a strange new world, as they come to terms with their situation, and each other.

The world of Down is an interesting one. Our group of characters are cast onto it, as if onto a foreign shore, and with a similar lack of understanding. Morden makes Down feel like a large space, once where getting anywhere is going to take a little while, and doesn’t flinch from the details that make this plausible – the characters are initially concerned with survival, with supplies, with how to acquire and prepare food. It’s a world which, to them, begins as a seemingly endless emptiness. It doesn’t stay that way of course – our cast of travellers quickly meet a host of native inhabitants, some more friendly than others.

Our view of the world shifts alongside the characters, learning more as they do. It’s a land filled with mysteries – one where habitation appears to have declined, and where strange, possibly magical and certainly lethal creatures hold sway. There’s a sense of wonder which Morden evokes, as the characters become more familiar with the world, but not yet of it. Each discovery is new, exciting and intriguing – but at the same time, potentially dangerous. Morden’s world is one sculpted with care. The role humanity plays, the society our party finds themselves in, are all plausible whilst unfamiliar. The sweeping vista that the characters have before them both befuddles and beguiles them, and it’s a credit to the author that it can do the same to the reader.

From a character standpoint, the focus is on a pair of young adults - one a Sikh engineering student, the other something of a reprobate – and their relationship with the world, the rest of the group, and each other. As part of a diverse ensemble, both have their quirks – I was a particular fan of the girl, who is struggling to work a minimum wage job and keep her nose clean to escape detention, and finds that on this new world, she’s entirely responsible for herself. Morden plots out the character journey wonderfully, giving us a troubled, undeniably intelligent, but angry individual, and looking at how they adapt and change in a world which requires self-confidence and self-reliance. She moves organically over the course of the book to be, if not a more pleasant human being, certainly with greater self-awareness.  This shift is done well – it feels like there’s learning and character growth visible across the pages. It helps that she’s a great character to read – largely intolerant of other people’s nonsense, typically pragmatic, but with a central core of compassion  and humanity to act as a counterbalance to these traits.

Our other protagonist is, at least initially, calmer, more sure of themselves. Both character journeys are centred around understanding the self; our Sikh engineer begins more sure of themselves, and finds events conspiring to strip that self knowledge back to a central core, paring back to the essential, and the previously unknown. He’s also quite an enjoyable read – a believable refusal to let go of values which might be a disadvantage in this new world, mixed with an empathetic understanding of those around him make for a gentler, but perhaps more effective character. Again, Morden gives his protagonist responses to circumstances which seem to work – there’s no out-of-the-bule changes here, more a series of gradual movements as he becomes something new – perhaps even something heroic.

The protagonists have a fairly small but marvellously portrayed supporting cast around them. I particularly enjoyed the Slavic railywayman who accompanies the engineering student  - his caustic comments and ruthlessness made for a nice contrast to the more humane central duo. The remainder of the commuter group gets a bit of time, but is largely overshadowed by that given to the antagonist; I won’t go into detail here for fear of spoilers, but fond that their driving goal, and the logic behind it, felt believable, if not exactly sympathetic.

The plot starts frantically, as our cast make their way to Down station; the frenetic pace slows a little as our group explores the world in which they find themselves, but spikes of danger and the excellent characterisation kept me turning pages. As the group moves inland, however, the narrative takes off.
There’s magic, murder, betrayal, and a series of revelations which shifted they way I thought about the characters, and the world. I’ll say no more, to avoid spoilers, but the journey that our heroes take through the world of Down is fraught, intriguing, and thoroughly compelling – I couldn’t put it down .
Is it worth reading? The world is an interesting and well realised one. The central characters are believable and feel entirely human (though I would like to see more of the supporting cast in the sequel). The plot rattles along nicely, and kept me enthralled to the last page – so yes, I’d say so.

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