Review by Andrew Bailes
Available now from Chicken House Publishing
Chicken House Publishing bring us Dan Smith‘s fifth children’s book in the form of science fiction adventure novel, ‘Below Zero’.
When the Reeves family plan to take their son away to St. Lucia on what could possibly be his last holiday, thanks to a cancer diagnosis, things take a turn for the worse as they are called on emergency business to the Antarctic. Drs Adam and Evelyn Reeves created a series of mechanical spiders tasked with surveying the freezing wasteland of Outpost Zero, an experimental base set up at the south pole to simulate a living space akin to the surface of Mars. Things start to go awry and it falls to the Reeves family to patch things up.
A typical trope of the horror or thriller genre is to create an isolating setting that strips the protagonist of outside help. ‘Below Zero’ takes a snowstorm in the middle of Antarctica as its prohibitive setting, suffocating the Reeves family as they try and escape Outpost Zero. Whilst under attack from brain-washing robots reminiscent of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, Smith excites the reader with soldiers for hire, a sub-zero snowstorm and familial strife as young Zak Reeves battles to overcome what is below the ice. In actuality however, these intriguing action-packed sequences only serve to distract from the novel’s lack of complex plot. A plot that would better lend itself to being a small event in a much larger fictional world of Smith’s design, rather than a cookie-cutter three hundred pages.
Smith utilises multiple timelines throughout ‘Below Zero’, switching back and forth between found footage and current events. Ultimately colliding two-thirds of the way through the novel, Smith successfully creates a compelling sense of mystery by overlapping character’s experiences in the same setting within different time frames. The fast-paced, action-based narrative that Smith molds is particularly exciting, something especially apt for Smith’s target audience of children aged 10+.
What is also striking about Smith’s novel, is its frequent religious undertones. References to Christian teachings of the origin of the universe, to Noah’s Ark, and the naming of characters such as Adam and Eve Reeves permeate his children’s novel. Smith may be leaning on these religious themes to properly articulate his message to the reader; one of respecting and saving our environment in a world which seems to be failing. However, it also seems that Smith is attempting to make a bigger social statement about the importance of religion and science working together to solve the mysteries of our planet.
Whilst repeating tropes and cliches of the adventure genre persist in Below Zero, Dan Smith’s fifth children’s novel is a fast-paced, pulse pounding thriller from beginning to end. Melding together teen adventure, thriller, and science fiction, Dan Smith has created a solid adventure in the whimsical world of children’s literature.