Review originally posted on http://www.TracingTheStars.com
This book includes a full length novel which is then followed by eleven short stories. The novel, titled "The Underlighters", is told through journal entries written by Janelle Cohen, a late teen girl who is coming of age in a post-apocalytpic/disaster Earth future in which Earth's population has been forced to live underground by a mysterious substance known as Dust.There are two very uniquely developed storylines that unfold within the pages and excerpts from Janelle's journal. One of them is her own story, which tells of her experiences living in an underground city, her job as a training electrician, and her relationships with her father, her friends and her past and present partners. The other story is the mystery of the Dust, how it has forced mankind underground, the question of exactly what it is, and the strange things that start to occur both above ground in the abandoned cities and underground where mankind thought they had found refuge.
I am not a fan of first person narratives, and I am an even bigger non-fan of journal style prose. So, when I began reading The Underlighters, I will admit that Michelle had to do a great deal to win me over and get over those two stylistic hurdles in my head. To say that she accomplished this is an understatement. My biggest issue with first person narratives has always been the that while you can often gain a limited-but-biased understanding of the main character, the other characters remain flat and unexplored. I have only read a few authors who have managed to overcome the first person narrative objective limitation, and Michelle Browne has been added to that very short list. Not only did I gain a good understanding of Janelle's character, I was able to form very good impressions of the other characters in the book through Janelle's interaction and realistic observations in her journal. My second issue, the journalistic style, is because many authors who use this style can leave the reader with a feeling of being told a disjointed story. Though Michelle's book did not change my dislike for journalistic narrative, she did an excellent job of telling the story without it feeling like you were only catching glimpses or disconnected pieces.
Aside from Janelle, the novel is full of three-dimensional characters and an exploration of different relationships, from father-daughter, to friendship, to partnership. One thing that might cause readers a bit of raised eyebrows is Michelle's very bold inclusion of all manner of sexual orientation and partnerships. In The Underlighters, the society is accepting of all types, seemingly without discrimination. There are even those who don't define themselves as a gender (Michelle uses xer / xim / etc instead of her, him, ((replacing h with x)) when referring to these types) and there are those that are defined as "inbetween" (bisexual). Janelle, in the beginning of the story, is dating a female, Chloe, but she explains past relationships with a male, Raheed. She later explores the idea of polygamy. I think this exploration and inclusion is refreshing and adds unique flavor to her story.
The gooey center of the cake that made me really enjoy The Underlighters was the world building. It is beautifully done; both the above-ground abandoned cities (known as "Up") and the underground city Janelle lives in. There are no info dumps and the two distinct worlds are revealed slowly through the journal entries. This slow world building eases the reader into both very alien environments and also adds to the mystery/thriller aspect of the story.
The mystery of the Dust was the cherry on top that earned five stars. Michelle does very little foreshadowing, which is often where authors stumble and reveal to much, giving the mystery away. Instead, Browne reveals tiny clues and pieces bit by bit, drawing a thread through each journal entry that gives you tantalizing ideas as to what Dust may be and what is really going on in Underlighter, but you won't fully figure the mystery out until Janelle does.
By the end of The Underlighters, I had already given The Loved, The Lost, The Dreaming five stars, but the good points didn't end there. Browne follows up the main story with several stand alone short stories for the reader to enjoy, each of them a glimpse at darker worlds within the imagination, dripping with delicately crafted description draped around solid bones of intrigue, mystery and emotional strings. I have only read three of the eleven stories at the time of this review because I find myself wanting to savor them. I want to devour them slowly and be able to revisit them in between my other review readings for a refreshing breath of really well crafted writing.
In a word - recommended. Keep an open mind and you will be rewarded with a dive into the depths of imagination that may leave you questioning, breathless and inspired.