Ty is the only teenager in the undersea Benthic Territory, where his parents farm crops to sell to those still living on dry land. It's a perilous life, especially when Ty accidentally stumbles into the path of the dangerous Seablite Gang.
But when Ty meets Gemma, a runaway topsider looking for her missing brother, Ty is determined to help her. No matter what secrets may lie beneath...
Dark Life is a YA dystopia influenced by the Western genre. I have to confess that before I read this one, I was little bit apprehensive about this particular combination. By itself, Western isn't a genre I'd ever venture into. However, the sci-fi elements sounded irresistible: a human society living under the ocean, farming the ocean floor and evolving in previously unseen ways? It's unfamiliar territory for YA, and I was definitely looking forward to exploring it.
As it turns out, the sci-fi and Western elements of Dark Life are a match made in YA heaven. Main character Ty is the only teenage resident in Benthic Territory, which is basically frontier country... under the ocean. Ty's parents are farmers, and when he gets to eighteen, he'll be allowed to stake his claim on his own patch of undersea land. But like any pioneers, they face the perils of the unknown. There are outlaws on the loose, dangerous animal predators, and it's also rumoured that those who live undersea from an early age are developing 'dark gifts' unknown in the world above. So although Dark Life is firmly futuristic, there are also echoes of more familiar stories about pioneers in centuries gone by. And although the outlaws of Benthic Territory travel by submarine rather than on horseback, they still conjure up the kind of dangerous, lawless feel that calls to mind all those Sunday afternoon movies about the Wild West.
Despite the Western elements, Dark Life also has a stronger sci-fi feel than most YA dystopias I've encountered recently. As you'd imagine, there's a lot of technology involved in enabling human beings to live at the bottom of the ocean - and considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. So Ty's house has tentacles and resembles a jellyfish, but is made of modern materials and fenced off by a dense stream of bubbles to deter predators. It's all amazingly imaginative and not like anything I've read before. At the same time, the references to the rising ocean levels - for example, at one point a character mentions a desire to move to 'the Colorado Islands' - had me pondering how much our landscape could change in the future and just how humankind would deal with this threat to our survival. Although I don't think that Kat Falls' vision of the future is a real possibility, I was definitely won over by the innovation and the thought that our species might evolve with the changing planet rather than be wiped out by it.
In the midst of all this, there's the beginnings of a really sweet romance between Ty and gutsy topsider Gemma. Main character Ty is a courageous and curious boy who has spent more time than most exploring his undersea world - largely without his nervous parents' permission. Gemma, meanwhile, is as much of a rarity undersea as Travis is on his few visits topside, and through her backstory we get disturbing glimpses of what it's like to live on dry land when there's barely enough of it for the population to live on, let alone to produce crops to feed themselves. It's easy to see why the majority of land-dwellers would be too afraid to become pioneers and move undersea like Ty's parents, but Gemma is the kind of character who has been able to swallow her fears in her quest to find her missing brother. Some of my favourite moments are those where Ty shows Gemma the true landscape of the undersea world, in breathtaking scenes full of wonder, colour and majestic beauty.
I think Dark Life will find its ideal audience in the younger end of the YA readership, with both male and female readers. However, it's also one for all those of us who never quite grew up. The emphasis is on adventure and the exploration of unknown landscapes rather than the romance, and the world-building is absolutely first class. Although the ending is a truly satisfying one, I was left with the feeling that there is so much more to explore in this vivid and fascinating world. A unique and fun dystopian offering.
Out: April 29th 2010, UK
Big thanks to the awesome folks at Simon and Schuster UK for sending me a review copy of this book.