I have been reading a good deal of history of late and welcomed the opportunity to read a different type of book such as the gritty, noir literature I enjoy. I also was interested in this new novel, "Low Town" because its young author, 26-year old Daniel Polansky, had been a student of philosophy in college, as I had been long ago.
"Low Town" is a mixture of noir and fantasy. These two types of genre writing seem incongrous at first. Noir demands a strong sense of place. a hardness, and a sense of realism. These qualities don't seem to mix well with fantasy. But for the most part, this book works. The book is set in Low Town, which is the tawdry lowlife section in a city called Rigus in a country called the Thirteen Lands. It is hard to put a time on ths story, Many of the traits of Rigus are loosely medieval but some a strikingly modern. (A grand piano is a fixture in some of the scenes.) But the world of the book differs in externals from places people know. Polansky has developed an elaborate story for his Thirteen Lands, replete with terminology for coinage and officialdom, its social structure, its own drugs of choice, and its gods and goddesses and theology. It is not a modern world, as Polansky's story relies heavily on sorcerors (there is a prestigious school for sorcery in the Thirteen Lands) and strange and unbelievable powerful and vile monsters conjured from the Beyond. Sorcery and monsters are ordinarily not the stuff of noir.
The noir elements of the story also are recognizable and ultimately are predominant in this book. The setting in Low Town, with its overcrowdedness, alleys, poverty, crime, bars, drugs, flophouses, and unsavory characters would be at home in virtually any large city. It has a sense of familiarity. The book's hero, a taciturn, hard 35-year old man called Warden is a prototypical noir figure. Warden grew up on the streets where he appeared headed for a life of crime. He was given the opportunity to escape this life and served in the army and in Rigus' cruelly efficient secret police, headquartered in a place called the Black House. But the Warden left Black House in disgrace and went back to his life of selling and using drugs in Low Town and running what appears to be a crime syndicate. As a good noir hero, Warden has a vulnerable side. He is especially protective of young children facing the vicissitudes of life on the streets. He rescues several such children, with varying results, during the course of the story.
Much of the book, as with noir, takes place in a bar. It is called the Staggering Earl which the Warden owns together with the proprietor, a crude, large garrolous individual named Adolphus. Adolphus and the Warden are fast friends and in their differences complement each other. The characters of the various people in the book, especially the Warden, are developed slowly and by indirection, with considerable subtelty. The writing is sharp, observant, and pithy.
The plot turns on the murders of three small children, two girls and a boy, in Low Town over a short time. Although he has been cashiered from the police force, the Warden is brought in to solve the crimes at the threat of excruciating torture and death if he does not succeed within a week. Warden is diligent, ruthless, and efficient, if not always perceptive. He is double and triple crossed and follows many blind leads. The book is replete with fighting, violence of every stripe, and much graphically described killing. Amulets, sorcerers and monsters have an integral role in the book.
As part of the pre-release publicity for "Low Town", Polansky identified Dashiell Hammett, Tolkien, and Quentin Tarantino as among the influences on the book. This novel appears to be the first in what will become a series. Polansky has done something novel and creative in this mixture of noir and fantasy. The book shows, as Polansky suggests in his pre-release interview, that human nature remains constantly recognizable in all its guises even when the surroundings are imagined. To my reading, the book is weakened in its element of fantasy as opposed to realism of the noir genre. But readers enjoying fantasy settings may well be intrigued by this noir story of murder toughness, and redemption in the Thirteen Lands.
In a grimy dump of a room above a bar lives the Warden, a man who has led many lives but now finds himself as low as ever. A former soldier and police officer, he is now addicted to the drugs he sells for a living in the territory he carved out for himself in Low Town, the seediest district in the city of Rigus. He's become a cynical man, leading a dark and violent life, but when he finds the abused corpse of a young girl who went missing a few days earlier, he can't help getting pulled into the investigation, which will inevitably bring him into contact with parts of his past he'd rather stay clear of. So begins Low Town, the promising debut fantasy novel by Daniel Polansky...
If it wasn't clear from that opening paragraph, Low Town is fantasy noir. It's a dark novel about cynical people in a grimy part of town. Its main characters are street hustlers, petty criminals, and corrupt cops. It's set in a part of the city where actual law enforcement officers tread lightly and a rough sort of justice is usually enforced by whichever crime lord runs that particular area. It starts off with Warden taking a hit of pixie's breath -- one of the drugs he both sells and frequently uses -- to help him face the day, and then tossing the contents of his bed pan out of the window into the alley below before trudging down to the bar below for his breakfast. No sparkly elves making merry in this fantasy, folks.
Warden is a fascinating main character. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he has become an anti-hero who has settled down at the low point of his adult life, but throughout Low Town you'll get bits and pieces of information that allow you puzzle together his back story, showing exactly how far he's fallen. The story is told from his first person perspective, so you'll get a very close look at the workings of his mind. He may seem cynical and selfish, but at several instances you'll also see a softer side of his personality, especially when it comes to children. Still, when faced with misfortune, he usually chooses between getting drunk, getting high, beating someone up, or all of the above.
Early on, I expected this to be a novel with a strong protagonist and a bunch of flat side characters, but instead I found that many of the bit players eventually take on enough life to become interesting in their own right. Adolphus, who runs the Staggering Earl bar and soldiered with Warden in the past, shows a gruff but good-natured demeanor that eventually reveals a softer side. (For some reason, he reminded me of Dan Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski.) Wren is a razor-sharp street urchin who becomes Warden's protégé. The Crane is the First Sorcerer of the Realm, responsible for saving the city in the past but now fading into old age, and Celia is his apprentice. Crispin is Warden's former partner in the city's police force (and at one point memorably tells Warden "You've become everything you ever hated.") Several of these characters start out being one-dimensional but eventually many of them take on enough detail and personality to become fascinating in their own right. Despite initial appearances, Low Town isn't a one-man show, which is promising for future novels in this series.
Aside from the characters, the other main attraction of this novel is its setting. There's an entire fantasy world here, even though the novel is set entirely in one small part of it and we only see bits and pieces of the rest of the world. Daniel Polansky makes several references to other cities and countries, various religions, past wars, and plagues that ravaged the city. The actual rulers never take the stage in this novel, but we do see examples of decadent nobility, a corrupt police force, and a terrifying intelligence bureau. There are also several distinct human races, and although it's easy to draw parallels with races from our own world, they still add realism to the overall picture. The author packs a lot of world-building detail into this relatively short novel, which again makes me curious to see future novels set in Low Town or the wider world.
Daniel Polansky paints the darkness, grime and depravity of Low Town with broad, bold strokes. Occasionally the noir is laid on a bit too thickly, but most of the time Polansky's prose displays a skill and grace that's unexpected for a debut novel. Being stuck inside the mind of a grim, cynical character can be hard to bear for an entire novel, but Warden shows enough wit and irreverence ("Up close she looked like someone better seen from farther away.") to turn Low Town into an entertaining and frequently funny read, even if the subject matter is on the dark side.
Low Town was published in the UK as The Straight Razor Cure, and as evocative as that UK title is, this is one of the few novels where I prefer the US title. It just fits the novel better. I also think the US cover is considerably more appropriate than the UK one. We didn't really need another mysterious hooded figure, especially one with its hand on fire. The brick-wall-and-graffiti cover of the US edition is perfect for this novel.
Low Town is a strong, confident debut that should go down well with readers who enjoy their fantasy on the noir side. It's a novel you can enjoy for its atmosphere as well as its story, full as it is of well-drawn scenes from the city's underbelly. It's also a tightly written book, which is something many people will appreciate in an age of novels with dramatis personae lists that take up several pages. Low Town delivers a fast, entertaining story in fewer pages than it takes some major epics to get out of the realm of basic exposition. I had a blast with Low Town, and I'm definitely keeping an eye out for whatever Daniel Polansky comes up with next.
on September 15, 2011
What caught me right away, even before the book was published, was the idea of a seedy drug dealer in a fantasy world as the main character of a novel. The premise was strong enough for me download the sample chapter onto my Kindle shortly after its release.
Once I started reading, the premise took a second seat to the voice which jumped off the first couple pages like nothing I had ever read before. And even though Polansky (no relation to the director) used a
couple cheap tricks, such as the character describing what they see when looking into a mirror, the voice prompted me to purchase the book even before I got to the end of the sample chapter.
From that point on though, the voice did soften a little bit, but not to the point where it wasn't good, just not as good. Also, the plot, which as you know revolved around the deaths of kids around Low Town, seemed to string out a little bit and it felt like at the end of each day, the main character was `reset' and it had hints of feeling almost like a series of short stores linked together by the main plot point.
I also felt like there were a number of characters that didn't really do enough to justify how much space they took up, and consequently they were completely left out of the conclusion and left to dangle.
But that is about the end of what I was able to find distracting about the book. And some things, like the `dangling characters,' I only noticed when looking back on the book once I was finished.
Aside from the voice, which I'll try to limit my raving on, I was impressed how this drug dealing (and strung out user as well) was able to garner as much sympathy form me as he did. (I suppose trying to find the murderer of an innocent child does that.) I found myself rooting for The Warden when he got into his skirmishes with the hoax, (Low Town slang for the cops) and I didn't even mind so much when he loaded up on pixie dust (Low Town cocaine I think.)
The Warden was also a very mortal person; he didn't win every fight. Even when he did win, he had wounds that would hinder him the next day. I found this very refreshing versus some other characters I've read where they might jump off a building and their ankle hurts for a couple minutes. The Warden feels his wounds throughout the book..
I also mentioned some of the slang, like hoax and pixie dust, but this book is full of this very colorful language that really pulls you into the world. What's quite impressive about it is that it feels organic to the story and not just slapped together and placed in there like other fantasy books I've read.
The best part of this noir/fantasy mashup is that I feel that this is not just a noir book with fantasy furniture or vice versa. Both the elements of noir and the elements of fantasy are essential to the story. For instance, the voice and the concept of the story would fail miserably without the noir part, and the plot would be impossible without the fantasy elements.
"Low Town" by Daniel Polansky is a true noir fantasy with spectacular voice and an incredibly rich world that more than makes up for its few flaws. I highly recommend this book to fans of noir, fantasy, and those who want to read something different from what normally ends up on the shelves.
I give this book 4.5/5 stars.
on February 16, 2016
This book came highly recommended as dark fantasy multiple places on the internet, and I completely agree. Daniel Polansky is a major talent. His characters are extremely flawed, but still very human. Unlike lesser authors, most of his characters are constantly learning and changing. Most are very realistic, not so much evil here as doing bad things for their own reasons, etc.
The magic is not very present, more a thing people whisper about, those who haven't seen it's power in the wars, which also helps add to realism. Hard to do gritty realism when at any time someone can toss around a fireball!
A complex tale, our hero very much a grizzled anti-hero, lots of action and plenty of mystery to keep your mind involved. I will definitely be reading the rest of this author's books.
on October 28, 2011
Meet the Warden of Low Town, a pure survivor in this post-apocalyptic world where plague decimated the population, likely setting the stage for a war that took even more lives on both sides. From a struggling street orphan to battlefield leader, he ascends to the top in a special operations investigative unit charged with maintaining order by any means necessary. Eventually the laws of gravity and women initiate the Warden's fall from grace, leaving him back on the streets of Low Town, where he reinvents his identity using the tools he has learned as a survivor.
The Warden is a self-made man in the local drug trade after dethroning a syndicate to carve out his territory. He's not a thug but there is clearly a very dark side to this man, as he maintains a delicate balance between criminal entrepreneur and neighborhood guardian angel. It's that last aspect of the Warden that pulls him back into his former investigator roll where multiple factions look to either manipulate or destroy him before he can unmask a sinister killer who leverages dark magic to murder children and cover the trail.
This is Daniel Polansky's debut novel that takes you to the dregs of a society trying to redefine itself after plague and war. There are no `good guys versus bad guys' in this read; only varying degrees of bad guys who exist in this world after anarchy where the unwritten laws of the street are still based on individual survival due to a disinterested ruling class.
From the outset you can feel the grime littering the streets come off the pages and see the grey-cast gloom in the sky. There is a building tension throughout the book that parallels the detailed actions as the Warden hunts the anonymous child killer. It's uncovering this society through the Warden's interpersonal relationships with the variety racial and social backgrounds that I found most intriguing and most enlightening from a personal standpoint.
There is plenty of action and entertainment as well and you'll fly through the pages as this fallen hero closes in on his nemesis. The Warden faces death at multiple turns in a novel where the good guy may not necessarily win but he'll go down hacking with blade in hand if it comes to that.
It's also a story of choices and consequences, which leads back to varying degrees of bad in everyone. You're exposed to interpersonal moral dilemmas where doing evil to serve the greater good is overlooked, but also accrues a debt that must eventually be paid by the laws of karma or nature if not men.
Because of his obvious character flaws, I find it's easy to root for the Warden. He's a hard man who also loves those in his inner circle in his own hard way. Honor does not hinder him to do what he must and it is duty to his people in Low Town that drives him. His back story is revealed a spoonful at a time and by the end there are still more questions about what drove this man to the life he leads.
There are plenty of other questions, and a few characters left at the end to set up what should be a great sequel to Polansky's incredible debut sci-fi, mystery, action-adventure novel. Having just come off a five-book high-fantasy series, this was the perfect change of venue; top notch.
on March 28, 2014
Enjoyed the book, but disappointed to find that The Straight Razor Cure is exactly the same book as Low Town, which is listed on Amazon as "Low Town (Low Town, Book 1)". I recommend the book, but such foolishness as republishing recent releases under new titles is deceptive.
on February 4, 2014
Simply amazing. It's only the first week of February but I'm already declaring this the best book I'm going to read all year. The characters are so well crafted, the underlying mystery is layered and complicated enough to keep the reader guessing and the last time I read about a world this richly detailed was in the Robert Lynn Asprin Thieves World series. I wish there were more books coming after this one because I am not done with The Warden.
Note this book is being published as Low Town in the US and as The Straight Razor Cure in the UK.
Low Town is Polansky's debut, but it certainly doesn't feel like it as it's a very self assured first effort. The setting is a Fantasy world, but one not as backward as we are used to. It is actually more of an Urban Fantasy as most of the action takes place in a city, which definitely gave it a very gritty feel as we meet all kinds of ruffians, gangsters, drug dealers, dark wizards, and other unsavory types.
The Fantasy actually comes off secondary to the Noir feel with the first person POV and the dark nature of the characters. In fact this isn't even your usual Fantasy city. It is a world that is on the cusp of advancement as there is talk of explosives and other innovations here and there. Though the city is also dependent on magic for protection from a plague that ravaged the area the generation prior.
The protagonist affectionately called The Warden is a disgraced ex-secret police officer turned drugged dealer. After a murder of a child in Low Town The Warden can't turn away from the case that leads him to what looks like a conspiracy of magic and also his past in the great war. Things quickly escalate as The Warden searches for the culprit and is tossed from groups on both side of the law. He plays all the groups quite well surprising even himself.
If you don't like drug use in your stories than don't touch Low Town. The Warden is an addict himself although he wouldn't admit it, but he is probably not as bad as his customers. The characterization of The Warden is quite strong so the drug use and distribution feels natural for him however abhorrent it may be. He isn't peddling light weight drugs most of the time. He lives a hard life full of dangers he mostly brings upon himself. He also lives above a tavern so he is seen knocking back quite a few as the story progresses.
Per its Noir sensibilities there are lots of twists and fake-outs, but the big reveal was foreshadowed a bit too heavily for me. It was only a slight comment, but from that point I knew pretty much where the story would go. The story also didn't go as deep as I was hoping exploring more of the characters, but it was a fun adventure getting to the end. And The Warden has a fantastic perspective.
Fans of Alex Bledsoe's Eddie LaCrosse and Mike Carey's Felix Castor novels would certainly enjoy Low Town, but for Noir lovers you've found your new favorite series. I do worry Low Town isn't magical enough for avid Fantasy readers expecting more, but it is a rough and tumble novel that keeps a quick pace and never loses its edge.
I'll definitely be back for more as this looks to be a long running series yet Low Town stands alone quite well all its own. Low Town/The Straight Razor Cure will be released this August on both sides of the pond.
And always remember: What happens in Low Town stays in Low Town.
It's pretty clear this debut fantasy novel is being positioned as a cool new thing. After all, what was the last time you saw a fantasy book with a 1990s stencil street art-style cover? It's definitely keen to carve out a niche in the genre by mashing up classic noir tropes with a more or less standard quasi-medieval low fantasy setting. Throw in some grim violence, contemporary profanity and slang (for example, at one point, a group of thugs is said to "roll deep"), and hey presto, this ain't your daddy's Tolkien! The author has alluded to his mashed up influences, from Hammett, to Tarantino, and yes, Tolkien. And to be fair, that combination actually is fairly representative of the kind of mix one is getting, with Tolkien being perhaps the weak link. What I haven't seen mentioned anywhere is the clear influence of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories. Those gritty, most city-based sword and sorcery tales are easily the best comparison to this book.
The antihero of this story is a drug dealer named Warden, whose territory covers a portion of the slums of a large capitol city which feels a lot like London. He's got a colorful past: first as a survivor of a vicious plague, then as the protege of the city's most powerful and beloved wizard, then as an officer for five years of trench warfare against the hated Dren kingdom, then as a top-ranking member of the imperial secret police. He left his position of power behind due to an unspecified incident over a woman, and now he's 35ish and living above a tavern run by his old war comrade. The story kicks off when a child is found murdered, and Warden gets caught up in the investigation. Soon enough, he's uncovered ties to the darkest magic, another child is killed, and he's got to race the clock to find out who's behind it.
It's kind of a classic crime story, and it's not to hard to imagine Warden as a down-and-out ex-cop turned private eye, undertaking the same kind of investigation in a modern metropolis. Unfortunately, anyone who's familiar with classic noir tropes will have a pretty easy time identifying the villain of the story well before Warden does. And I have to confess, even while I understood the villain's motivations, I never really understood what their overall goal was. I'm going to need to go back and read the last 15-20 pages or so, and that's never a good sign. The book brims with atmosphere and brio, and there's plenty of snappy dialogue and clever detail -- but it's just a shade too simple. It's the kind of book I can imagine my 18-year-old self falling head over heels for, but for the adult me, it remained just a touch too basic to truly fall in love with. Still, I imagine there will be more installments in the Warden series, and I will definitely pick the next one up with interest.
I was intrigued to come across a fantasy noir. Low Town's gritty, cold streets resonate with you, despite the nuances of its genre, which is great, if like me, you are not generally a fantasy reader. Polansky can definitely write, and every page is an opportunity to enjoy his witty, dark prose.
This is an enjoyable debut novel, though the plot pacing is a bit uneven. I am definitely excited to read follow-on efforts by this interesting new author.