[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]
A group of survivors from different areas of the city find themselves running in the Underground tunnels at night as a mysterious, overwhelming fire rages through London. When a portal opening on a mysterious sea opens, they quickly jump through it, knowing it's the only salvation they're going to find—that, or a painful death. Stranded in this new world, without anything to help them save for their clothes and whatever they had with them when they ran from the fire (that is to say, very little), these seven people from various backgrounds have to learn to work together and cooperate. And it sure as hell isn't easy, especially when they start getting to know each other more.
This is how “Down Station” begins, narrated through the eyes of two characters: Mary and Dalip. Overall, the story was a little “slow” at times, but never enough as to make me skim: these slower moments allowed the author to explore the mind and growth of the main characters. Although it's a bit too bad that the secondary ones weren't given so much care (Stanislav was OK, but the cousins didn't seem to do much, for instance), the various stages of self-discovery Mary and Dalip went through were really interesting to read.
Mary: orphan, foul mouth, prone to burst of angers, got in trouble with the law, was placed on probation... Basically a young woman without many means, who tends to run her mouth faster than she thinks, caught in a vicious circle: the more others see her as trash, the more she conforms to that image people have of her. Landing in the strange world of Down puts her face to face with something she hadn't expected: freedom. The freedom to go wherever she wants, to be whoever she wants to be. And that freedom is frightening, just as it might lead her to losing herself... or not?
Dalip: engineering student from a Sikh family, loyal and honest to the point of endangering himself, always wanting to do good even though sometimes “good” could very well turn and bite him (and others) back... A noble and honorable character, who nevertheless used to live under his family's thumb and never seemed to have an opportunity to discover who he could really be. As cruel as Down was, that world transformed him, made him become another, stronger man, while presenting him with challenges that might very well break his honest streak and turn him into a monster. The path to his freedom is not Mary's, not his family's, not Stanislav's: it is his, and only his.
There is magic and mystery in that world, and rules both fairly different and fairly similar to those of ours (those who have the one sought-after currency are the ones who manage to gain power, yet the most powerful potentials aren't necessarily those you'd expect at first). There is lies and treachery, hiding half-truths and precious information. The allies in this story were shifty, and the antagonists cruel—but as Mary so aptly summed it up, although they had no excuses, they had reasons to do what they did. Were they valid? Who knows? Perhaps Bell's plan could have worked. And perhaps she was just crazy, and Down would never let anyone go no matter their efforts.
I wasn't so satisfied with the ending, unfortunately, as it left quite a few doors open (is London still here, could anyone go through a portal the other way, what happened to a certain character...) without feeling like there's going to be a sequel. However, I could be mistaken about that—I really hope there's going to be one, addressing those points, as they're for me a case of “you said too much or not enough” for me. (Also, the blurb currently on Goodreads is a bit misleading, as if it was the blurb for a series rather than just one book?) No matter what, I definitely enjoyed the story and the way the main characters turned out, how they gained their freedom and what they made of it.
Conclusion: Interesting concept and character development, although I found the ending a bit abrupt.