And here I thought I’d broken my streak of being grumpy with the science in speculative fiction novels! Granted, my last read, Oliver K Langmead’s terrific Birds Of Paradise, never pretended at being scientific, to its credit. But here I am reviewing another novel with half-baked scientific ideas that could have just been hand-waved entirely once we’d gotten past the quantum planes theory: instead, we’re fed the idea that the protagonist’s mother is secretly a groundbreaking physicist a la Marie Curie whose one! ONE! act of science is the ONE-time building of a chemical key that opens a portal to a parallel plane of existence much like our own.
Down World starts out really well. Marina O’Connell is transferring to East Township High School, built over the site of a 1940s military installation. It’s a weird, twisting complex, and when she gets lost on her first day, she’s relieved and flattered to be rescued by Brady Picelli, who’s happy to help her figure out how to get to her classes. But making friends turns out to be harder than she’d expected, so when she notices him and his girlfriend Piper sneaking off campus one day, she impulsively decides to follow. She’s somewhat taken aback when they head to the railroad station where her brother died several years ago. Piper gets on a train west, before Brady notices Marina spying on them.
The next day, the entire town is abuzz: Piper has gone missing and her distraught parents don’t know what to do. Marina wants to come clean but Brady begs her not to, and brings her to Down World by way of explanation. Located deep beneath the school is a portal to an alternate reality that the students — or those students in the know, at least — call Down World. Marina walks through to a world where her brother is still alive and her parents aren’t mere shells of themselves, grieving their lost son. When she comes back out, Brady explains that Piper did something terrible in relation to Down World and has gone west to seek an answer. Little do Marina and Brady know that the answer will soon come back to their town and turn their entire lives upside down.
Very cool premise, lots of twists and turns, but the plot relies too much on Marina doing stupid things in order to advance it. And the second half or so of the novel is just so seriously under-baked. So many excellent ideas and beats are smushed into the last ten percent of the book especially. I wanted to empathize with the characters as they faced all these sudden reversals and revelations but it was like watching scenes unfold outside the window of a speeding train, racing past so quickly that I could barely register what happened, never mind how anyone felt about anything. The book is readable but the pacing is weird, especially in relation to Marina’s suddenly super-genius mom. It’s a complete book, but it doesn’t feel like a finished book to me, more’s the pity.
Down World by Rebecca Phelps was published March 30 2021 by Wattpad Books and is available from all good booksellers, including
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