REVIEW: Down Station by Simon Morden

18th June 2016

Down StationDown Station by Simon Morden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First published on Fantasy Faction

I made the mistake of reading the first few chapters of Down Station on the Tube…which in Morden’s world is consumed by a terrible fire, along with the rest of London. Apart from regular, nervous checks on how many stops I had until Paddington, I was absolutely glued to the opening pages. The author paints a remarkably intense and realistic picture of melting Underground, a scene through which our three protagonists struggle in their desperation to reach safety.

Safety comes in the form of a portal to a world called Down, a portal that closes behind the small group of survivors once they’re through. With no way back, their only option is to venture into the unknown, battling terror and disbelief, and facing an uncertain future.

The best thing about Down Station is its main characters. Mary is an angry young woman, in and out of prison, damaged by a life spent in care and unable to find a place for herself in society. Dalip is a young Sikh and engineer, desperate to prove himself and escape the constraints of his family. Stanislav is the most enigmatic of the three, a scarred veteran who has seen too much of war and its violence. It’s their everyday heroism that makes them such compelling characters; ordinary people thrust into the extraordinary with nothing to help them survive but their wits and their past experiences.

Down becomes something different for each of them. Mary comes to see it as a chance for a better life, a fresh start. Dalip, though homesick, learns to fight – both physically and metaphorically – for his freedom. Stanislav, ostensibly the best prepared to face Down’s dangers, is ultimately the one who struggles to cope. I loved their interactions and the way in which they influence each other. It’s some really masterful characterisation that’s a joy to read.

Down is full of interesting inhabitants. The survivors’ first encounter is with the wolfman, an insulting fellow clad in furs, accompanied by two chained wolves. He seems to understand their predicament, but offers no other advice than to seek out the geomancer, a mysterious woman holed up in a nearby castle. The survivors’ journey to find the geomancer and what happens when they do makes up the rest of the book.

Another important character is the shady figure called Crows, bony, dark, cloaked, who found himself in Down after fleeing London in 1938. An archetypal trickster, you’re never quite sure where his loyalties lie, though he saves Mary’s life and shows her how to use magic. If any character epitomises Down, it’s Crows: slippery, enigmatic, with his tattered clothes and his army of birds.

To say Down is a magical fantasy world gives somewhat the wrong impression. While it’s certainly fantasy and magic is integral, a sense of emptiness and indifference pervades. Down gives and takes away, as Mary (dabbling in magic) swiftly discovers. The history of Down is written by its immigrants – people from past Londons who, fleeing some danger, found a portal and walked through it. The world has its own set of mutable rules, which hinder as well as help. It’s a sentient landscape that moulds itself to your needs while remaining ever capricious. Essentially, it’s a character in its own right, adding to the feeling of translocation. Amidst this transience, Morden plants the intriguing idea of the White City (nice London reference), a settlement that, unlike other towns, is permanent. By the end of the book, we still don’t know much about this potential haven except that people go there to seek answers and often leave empty-handed.

With neither economy nor government, the only currency is maps, hand-drawn and painstakingly crafted from natural materials. The anarchic Down is vast and maps are necessary to mark the portals when they appear. Knowledge is power and the ability to trade for it. To our characters, it’s an alien concept, but makes perfect sense in a world shaped by its connection to London and those who come from it.

This isn’t my usual go-to fantasy, but I can’t recommend Down Station enough. One of the best scenes is Mary versus a dragon, by turns hilarious and heart-stopping. Mary is probably my favourite character, foul-mouthed and fearless, despite everything that’s happened to her. Though she and Dalip come from opposite spectrums of experience, they have more in common than they realise, and it’s a pleasure to watch them grow and develop as individuals.

I’m not sure whether this book is a standalone; the narrative is pretty open-ended. The world is so intriguing, however, that I’d love to revisit it. To sum up: Down Station is a deft and assured novel with a cast of diverse, well-realised characters. Morden blends elements of urban and epic fantasy to create an original story.

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