The Light at the Bottom of the World is a delightfully atmospheric and imaginative YA sci-fi/fantasy debut! I was swept away by the world-building and atmosphere.
About The Light at the Bottom of the World
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion | Release Date: October 29, 2019 | Pages: 320
Genre: YA, Science Fiction | Format: eBook | Source: Publisher via NetGalley
At the end of the twenty-first century, the world has changed dramatically, but life continues one thousand feet below the ocean’s surface. In Great Britain, sea creatures swim among the ruins of Big Ben and the Tower of London, and citizens waver between fear and hope; fear of what lurks in the abyss, and hope that humanity will soon discover a way to reclaim the Earth.
Meanwhile, sixteen-year-old Leyla McQueen has her own problems to deal with. Her father’s been arrested, accused of taking advantage of victims of the Seasickness-a debilitating malaise that consumes people,often claiming their lives. But Leyla knows he’s innocent, and all she’s interested in is getting him back so that their lives can return to normal.
When she’s picked to race in the action-packed London Submersible Marathon, Leyla gets the chance to secure his freedom; the Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. The race takes an unexpected turn, though, and presents her with an opportunity she never wanted: Leyla must venture outside of London for the first time in her life, to find and rescue her father herself.
Now, she’ll have to brave the unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a secretive, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If she fails, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture–and her father might be lost forever.
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Fun fact: one of my favorite video games is Sunless Sea, in which you captain a ship in the world of Fallen London – a text-based RPG adventure in the Gothic underworld of a London taken one mile beneath the surface by a swarm of bats. (As an aside, I’ve been meaning to write a review of this game for over a year. So um, 15/10 would recommend.)
I bring up Sunless Sea in my review because while the stories are completely different, the atmosphere, sense of exploration, and danger made me put on the Sunless Sea soundtrack about fifteen minutes after I began reading my eARC. Which is a fantastic choice if I do say so myself.
But I digress…
“Hope had abandoned them to the wrath of all the waters. The great Old Floods had done more than exile humanity to the depths of the oceanic abyss. They had also ravaged humankind of all faith and, like expiring pockets of air, sucked out any belief they would ever again live in peace.”
The Light at the Bottom of the World is set in the year 2099, about sixty-five years after a cataclysmic climate event made the ocean’s waters rise and the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. What remains of humanity lives 1,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, stuck in the past and afraid of the unknown.
Shah absolutely nails the atmosphere. Even though I have never done more than snorkeling, I could envision the world that she created. Dark and mysterious, a never-ending expanse for exploration but danger in every crevice. The world-building is fantastic and the tone of writing captures the anxiety and fear of what lurks outside of safety. Because while humanity has continued, it’s as dangerous as ever.
“Beneath us, the undergrowth is an endless expanse of ancient trees, all uprooted and toppled over one another. The mass of plants – a mixture of long dead and evolved new life – ripples as if the ground itself is alive, whispering, plotting.”
The writing is descriptive without being over-burdened, and as a result the book is a fast-paced read. I suffered from quite a reading slump in October, but I found myself breezing through the book when I picked it up. I did find the plot’s pacing to be a little uneven in the middle compared to the beginning and end of the book, but I never thought the plot dragged.
“All I see is a vast and terrible unknown ahead of me. An endless abyss of monstrous creatures and earthquakes and the all-destructive Anthropoids.”
Leyla McQueen is a sixteen-year-old British Muslim girl who enjoys punk rock and racing submersibles. I am not going to lie, I loved that she was blaring The Clash when we first meet her! Leyla’s parents are both of Afghan descent and I love how much her heritage means to her and her family. She’s been living alone for the past three months since her father was arrested, but no one will tell her exactly where he is. Which isn’t shady at all.
Light is told in Leyla’s first-person perspective, and it feels like she’s just narrating the story to her diary in a way. Her anxiousness and Virgo nature really comes through in how the story is told. I think we as a society get caught up in fierce female characters, but “quiet and daring in spite of their fear” characters deserve love too. I also appreciated Leyla’s character development in the course of the book, which I can’t discuss because of spoilers.
While I absolutely loved the plot and world-building, I struggled a bit connecting with Leyla. I love her strength and courage to do whatever it takes to find and rescue her beloved papa, but this is a book which nails the sixteen-year-old perspective. This isn’t a bad thing at all – on the contrary, I think teenagers acting like teens need to be more prevalent in YA – but this is the case of right character, wrong reader.
“No past. No future.”
Other than the atmosphere itself, I think my favorite part of the book is the underlying social and political commentary. Light is set in a society which is steeped in nostalgia – they revere everything “ancient” to the point that they would rather restore historic buildings rather than deal with current social issues.
“A group of off-duty train drivers in the nearby booth discuss ancient transport over a pint. ‘I’m telling you,’ a woman says, ‘Old World trains were spotless, and everyone chatted, knew one another. It was safe as houses. And they never broke down – not once. Zero delays!'”
Revisionist history is one of the dangers of nostalgia, and you can see it across all sectors of the population in Light. People hold the time before as the Golden Age, helpfully forgetting all of the flaws. Spotless trains? Zero delays? On what planet? But besides that, an undercurrent of this book is the fact that history is written by the victors and we should always question everything.
Unfortunately, my reading experience was definitely hampered by spoilers in someone’s Goodreads updates. Can we all just agree not to put spoilers in Goodreads updates? I was assured the spoiler wasn’t real (“you’ll see”), but real or not it actually permanently and irreparably colored my opinion of a character. To the point that I don’t know if any of my feelings about this character are based on what I read or not. And that kind of sucks.
Overall, I found The Light at the Bottom of the World to be a solid debut fantasy story and I am looking forward to finding out what happens next (that ending, though!). While I didn’t connect with the characters as much as other readers, this is very much a Me Being in My 30s Thing. I found the atmosphere amazing and thought London did a good job describing the setting, which made up my lack of character connection. I am confident that many a teen reader will fall in love with Leyla! And that cover!?!? I had to buy a finished copy so it can grace my collection.
Representation: anxiety (and possible panic attacks, not explicit), Muslim rep, Pashtun rep
Content warnings: death of a parent, loss of a parent, mention of suicide, a dog is thrown by a Bad Guy (but is okay)
eARC provided by Disney-Hyperion via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review. This did not affect my opinion. Quotations were compared against the finished copy that I purchased.
🌻 This was a buddy read with Shealea @ Shut Up, Shealea
Have you read The Light at the Bottom of the World? If so, what are your thoughts?