Review: The Underlighters by Michelle Browne
This review has been a long time coming. I’ve read The Underlighters over a period of a month because of limited time but each time I came back to it, I was right back into the dystopian world of The Underlighter City. I could smell and feel the claustrophic atmosphere of the endless tunnels. And also the pull of going UP, into the world that is now covered in Darkness and Dust and no longer safe or habitable. Some pockets of civilization have still survived in the world, but contact between them is sparce if established at all. The citizens of Underlighter City are on their own and recreated society as best they could. The reader is drip-fed pieces of world-building that creates the vivid canvas that is Underlighter City. This is where for me the book works magic.
We see the society through the eyes of Janelle Cohen and her diary entries. A young adult woman who works in electronics and is up her ears in relational complications. Her writing style is candid and liberally spiced with swear words that might put off some people. Most of her entries are written in a voice that rings true of the agegroup depicted in the story. Only when the writing turns into dialogue driven story telling, the idea of journal entries seems stretched, but I feel it helps the story overall.
Janelle is drawn into a mystery that threatens to undermine the fragile society that has been rebuild. Kids go missing and Dust, thought to be contained, creates fabulous, dangerous creatures right in the middle of their tunnels. To add to her burden, poor Janelle is stuck into a relationship with her girlfriend Chloe, who pushes towards marriage while making herself very unpleasant company. The Underlighter City has relaxed views on sexual relationships of different kinds (hetero, homo, bi and multible relationships seem widely accepted in their society). In fact, some are Inbetween, with their own pronoun to go along with it. I liked the idea of a society where sexual prejudice was no longer prevalent but the use of the pronoun and the sometimes shallow way of dealing with sex and relations between the characters distracted from the story.
The protagonist seems ultimately more capable of taking action into her own hands when it comes to the mystery of Dust and the missing kids than in her relationships. Together with some of her friends, she joins the city’s rulers in going after the kids, battling the Dust that threatens to disrupt the fragile society.
This book has certainly wet my appetite for dystopian fantasy, a genre I’ve neglected for far too long.