Down Station by Simon Morden

Down StationDown Station
Simon Morden
Gollancz, 311 pages
Review by Iain Maloney

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Down Station is a hard book to review without spoilers because a lot of the tension and drama comes from the main characters – Mary and Dalip – and the reader not knowing anything. The novel is a journey into Down, a magical world connected to London by a series of portals that appear to people in great need. The catch is they only go one way, from London to Down. Apparently, no one can return. When Mary, Dalip and a crew of cleaners on the Underground are transported to Down after what may or may not be a nuclear attack on London, they find themselves lost and confused in a strange world. They quickly meet some of the residents of Down but this proves disasterous. In Down, knowledge is power and new arrivals are a prized commodity.

Down owes a lot to Ursula le Guin, and fans of Earthsea will enjoy learning about the idiosyncrasies of a world clearly built for a series. While there is a strong narrative arc involving the maturing of Mary and Dalip, many of the questions raised on the way are left open, signposting a sequel, at least. I would welcome one. The main weakness of this novel is the balance between introducing a new, complicated world and a satisfying, driving narrative, a problem that would be absent from a second instalment. The world Morden has created is interesting and intriguing enough to sustain a series.

The novel’s structure is a clever twist on the ‘novice and guide’ trope, where an outsider (and the reader’s eyes and ears) is inducted into a new world by an older, wiser teacher. In Down no one can be trusted, everyone is on the make, so Mary, a troubled young woman well known to the police, and Dalip, a nice, studious, if frustratingly naive Sikh boy, take on both roles in a mutually supportive relationship. While it’s the magic and politics of Down that provide the action and impetus, it’s the emotional baggage each character has dragged through the portal that gives Down Station its depth. These psychological themes are often less subtly woven into the story than would be ideal and character motivation tends to be over-explained.

Mary is a fiery protagonist, stubborn and foul-mouthed with a background perfect for adventure, peppered with enough strife and pain to harden her while denying her a home to yearn for, like a more mature version of Philip Pullman’s Lyra. The others are less sympathetic and the feeling that Dalip needs a good slap never quite left me. Secondary characters tend to be of a type or fade into the background – one disappearing completely, although there’s a hint she’ll reappear at some point in the series. Again, a second book set in Down could spend less time fleshing out the world and more time filling in the supporting cast.

Ultimately Down Station is an enjoyable journey into a new, tantilizing world, and one I’d be happy to repeat when part two comes along.