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 Walter Sobchak from 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. 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 U.K. as The Straight Razor Cure, and as evocative as that U.K. title is, this is one of the few novels where I prefer the U.S. title. It just fits the novel better. I also think the U.S. cover is considerably more appropriate than the U.K. 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 U.S. 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 less 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.