Gritty. Dark. Brutal. These are buzzwords that are routinely used in reviews of Young Adult novels, but never have these words been more fitting than for James Smythe’s WAY DOWN DARK, the first novel in the AUSTRALIA trilogy.

The ‘Australia’ itself is a colossal spaceship sent adrift through space, searching for a new home after the destruction of Earth – but the ship has been floating for hundreds of years without communication or governmental control. Instead the ship and its inhabitants are left to rule themselves, forming classes and factions that vie for control of Australia.

I said this was dark and gritty, and to be honest, the level of gruesome detail borders on the nauseous at time. Most of the book involves discussions of the ‘Pit’, the lowest level of the 80-floor vertical ship, a place where everything rotting and dead has fallen and accumulated. Bodies and waste have piled up here, serving as the mass grave for hundreds, perhaps thousands of people over the years. Be warned – you might need a strong stomach to get through some of the chapters.

The book follows Chan, a teenage girl who attempts to make a small difference against the mounting war between the ‘free people’ of Australia and the Lows – vicious bandits who border on the psychopathic. The Lows – originally called that because they lived on the lowest levels of the ship – have been amassing power, conquering the ship section by section, and they will kill and destroy everything in their quest for control.

Added to the mix are the mysterious Pale Woman – holy priestesses who live in the topmost floor of the ship and worship a modified form of the Bible that has three Testaments rather than two. This ‘new’ bible contains additions that tell about the destruction of Earth, the story that everyone on the ship believes.

I can’t say anything without revealing a massive spoiler, but suffice to say, if you know about the history of the country – my own country, as it happens – Australia, then you might have your own suspicions about the big plot-twist. I was hoping for it, but it still floored me, and spurred on the the second half of the novel in a big way.

WAY DOWN DARK appeals to its own Biblical themes too – the Pale Women talk of ‘ascension’ and allude to Revelations and the Apocalypse. The Four Horsemen are there – War, as the Lows and Free people engage in a bloody struggle; Famine as the ship’s primary source of food, a sustainable arboretum, is contested; Conquest as the Lows sweep across the entire ship, led by a power-crazed king; and Death itself that hangs over the ship, slowly whittling down the population of Australia. Chan might even be Christ of the second coming, redeeming and saving those whom she believes are pure and deserve hope, and condemning those who have wronged her.

Out of all this comes a gripping novel, short and thrilling. The action never lets up, only broken for the occasional plot reveal. The world of Australia is impeccably described, and has clearly been thought through in detail; right from the first page, the reader is transported to this desolate ship in the middle of space, where trust is rare and power is the new currency.

WAY DOWN DARK will stay with you long after the final page has closed, and it ends on a cliffhanger that will certainly kickstart the sequel with a bang. WAY DOWN DARK is already available in all good bookstores, and I recommend it to anybody who loves YA Sci-Fi or Dystopians.

The Good

A dark, bloody YA that doesn’t pull any punches. A perfectly described world of chaos and power, with two massive plot-twists that make this one of the best novels of the year.

The Bad

The gruesome details can be a little nauseous, but aside from that, I can’t specifically name anything ‘bad’.

The Verdict

Brutally dark and intense, WAY DOWN DARK delivers a thrilling entry to the AUSTRALIA series with a twisting plot that makes it one of the best new releases this year.