Doorways into magical lands are a venerable fantasy tradition going back centuries in English fiction. Think Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. In the Twentieth Century we had the seminal Narnia series and plenty of imitators followed. More recently we’ve even seen a modern deconstruction of that mythology in books like Lev Grossman’s Magician’s series. In this context, Simon Morden’s Down Station seems a little staid. The central idea is an old one, any interest here is what he manages to do with it.
Down Station opens naturalistically. Troubled teen Mary is working as an after hours garbage collector in the London Underground and young engineering student Dalip is similarly working on a rail replacement team. When an unknown disaster strikes above ground Mary, Dalip and a few of their fellow workers escape through a door that takes them into another world from which there is seemingly no return. They soon discover that they are not the first people to come to the world of Down from London and that the magic of the world will allow them to reinvent themselves.
So far, so clichéd. But a couple of aspects save Down Station. The first is the main characters. There is no argument for more diversity here where the two main characters are a young black woman with anger management issues, and a young Sikh man. They are accompanied by and meet a polyglot of London including a Bosnian war veteran and a large Caribbean woman simply called Mama. In some ways this is in young-adult coming of age territory for Mary and Dalip as they grow into the people they want to be rather than the people that society has made them.
Secondly, besides the coming of age aspect, are the thematic elements that Morden explores. Down Station is, for much of its length, an exploration of power dynamics, the morality of slavery and revolution. It is fantasy informed by modern and age old conflicts between the ruling class and the oppressed. And while the dialogue can sometimes be a little heavy handed and the metaphoric imagery a little obvious, this aspect gives Down Station a little more depth than being simply about a bunch of people surviving in a fantasy world.
Overall, Down Station is a solid but not exceptional fantasy. While British authors are reinventing and reinterpreting the genre, Simon Morden has stuck more firmly to the middle ground. But for those who enjoy this form of magical exploration, the world of Down may be worth a visit.