Simon Morden, The Books of Down, Gollancz,
"No, I'm sorry, I don't review an unfinished series," I usually say. Except that it's exactly what I'm doing here. So be warned: The Books of Down is a trilogy and the third volume hasn't got a publication date yet. But it's the best portal fantasy I've read in a long time and it deserves some love bombing so that this third volume can finally hurry our way.
Two groups are in the London Tube at night. One group is composed of cleaners, another is made of workers. Suddenly, a roaring fire. Whoever can, flees in the tunnels; many die. In front of a closed door, the fire right behind them, are Mary, Dalip, Mama, Elena, Luiza, Grace and Stanislav. When they can finally open it, they see the sea and a coast. They step through and the door disappears. They are now in Down, a place without rules and where magic exists. A place whose inhabitants have all come from London through portals, now closed to them.
I love a good portal fantasy and The Books of Down tick all the boxes when it comes to the genre: weird world and inhabitants on the other side of the portal, magic, maps and mysteries to solve.
There are two things though which, to me, made this series stand out in the genre: the ideological aspect of it and the characters.
Down is a utopia in the sense of the highest state of anarchy: a land of plenty that provides for people who live freely, that grants shelter, gifts, and food. But Morden takes the ideology and puts actual people in it: so yes, you have the utopia but, people being people, the strongest enslave, kill, abuse. It's always a reversal that I find interesting: you start with the perfect place and you see what humans make of it.
The character of Dalip, a young Sikh engineer, is a great choice in such a setting as he works out how to live and act according to his faith and to his family's expectations in this world. The character of Mary is completely different: a woman living in the margins of society and law in London, she finds in Down a place that suits her. Nonetheless, she faces her own struggles as she realises that power and anarchy raise also the questions of trust and friendship. Morden manages to write two conflicted and believable characters without making the religious and morality questions appear naive. They offer a very interesting and complete exploration of humanity faced with the possibility of true anarchy.
The characters in The Books of Down go beyond these two: from the slippery Crows, to a dashing pirate appearing in The White City, to say nothing of various henchmen... I particularly enjoyed the character of Stanislav and the effect Down had on him, an interesting illustration of the consequences of war.
Two characters left me a bit underwhelmed though: Mama who doesn't go much beyond the maternal role her name hints at, and the geomancer Bells who felt a bit too quickly drawn.
It is to be noted that the characters are diverse (race, gender - binary only -, faiths), and that, to my understanding, the representation is quite good.
The trilogy is, at the moment, unfinished. And it's a real pity because The White City gives a lot of answers but also raises new questions (also maps! Also time travel! Also portals!). Down Station establishes the world, the superficial answers, and gets you into it, but the series really comes into its own with the second volume and leaves you wanting for more.
The pace is strong, the story is action packed with a lot of space left to mystery and speculation. It is, in short, a very enjoyable and entertaining read that deserves en ending.
Despite this unfinished status, if you love a portal fantasy as much as I do, go and buy it. Not only it'll signal to the publisher that, yes, there are readers out there who are interested and want more of it, but also you'll really enjoy reading it, even if we don't have the complete story.
To be noted: some reviewers have called it YA. Despite the main characters' youth, it's not YA (some aspects are pretty grisly). It's definitely not The Hunger Games either or any flavour of dystopia trending in YA currently.
The writer's website.
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All reviews are spoiler free unless explicitly stated otherwise.
I only review stories I have liked even if my opinion may be nuanced. It doesn't apply for the "Novels published before 1978" series of blog posts.
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