The Warden Returns: Tomorrow, the Killing by Daniel Polansky

Three years after the dramatic events portrayed in Daniel Polansky’s excellent noir fantasy debut Low Town (known as The Straight Razor Cure outside of the U.S.), the Warden is back to doing what he does best: running his slum town territory with equal parts cunning and violence, selling drugs, and frequently dipping into his own stash. He’s still the same grim, cynical man: once a hero of the Great War, then a member of the Black House secret police… and now just an aging minor crime lord with a growing addiction to the drugs he peddles for a living.

As Tomorrow, the Killing gets started, the Warden is summoned by Edwin Montgomery, the celebrated general he once served under. Not too long ago, General Montgomery lost his only son Roland, who briefly became a famous advocate for the countless forgotten veterans of the Great War. Now the general’s only daughter has gone missing in Low Town, looking for clues about her brother’s death. Panicked, the general calls on the one man who knows the dangerous streets of Low Town like the back of his hand….

So begins Tomorrow, the Killing, the excellent sequel to Low Town/The Straight Razor Cure. I’m always a bit nervous about follow-ups to strong debuts, because all too often a variety of factors combine to make an author’s second effort much less impressive. If you’re concerned about this now, let me just go ahead and put those worries to rest: there’s no sophomore slump here. Tomorrow, the Killing starts with the solid foundation of its predecessor, but adds a more complex and engaging plot, lots of fascinating information about the main character’s past, and a truly stunning ending. It’s in almost every way a better novel than the already excellent series opener.

Tomorrow, the Killing shuttles back and forth between the present and the past, with several chapters consisting of flashbacks to the Warden’s time as a soldier in the Great War and the period he was a member of the feared Black House security/secret police force. Rest assured: these flashbacks serve as more than just a way to fill in the blanks in this mysterious character’s past – even though anyone who read Low Town and wanted to find out more about the mysterious Warden and his fall from grace will be thrilled to read these sections.

More than just character background, those flashbacks are often directly relevant to the present day plot, because the war veterans’ organization is mobilizing its large membership to protest in the streets about a new tax on their benefits. Political upheaval is in the air, tempers are flaring, and even Adolphus, the Warden’s level-headed friend and former war buddy, is getting caught up in it. Wren, the street urchin mentored by the Warden and adopted by Adolphus and his wife, is also getting swept along by the crowd’s energy, which complicates the Warden’s attempts to straighten him out and get him some basic tutoring for his latent magical skills.

In this unstable climate, the Warden is desperately trying to solve the mystery of the general’s daughter’s disappearance, while at the same time keeping Adolphus and Wren safe, not to mention dodging the various parties who don’t wish him well. With a few crime syndicates in the mix, as well as some of the Warden’s borderline psychotic former colleagues from Black House, the end result is another tense and violent novel.

In some ways, Tomorrow, the Killing is very similar to Low Town, but it easily avoids the “just more of the same” trap. Polansky carries over some elements from the opening volume, especially the large amount of violence, gallows humor, and painfully frank looks at the bleakness of life in Low Town and the darker sides of people’s personalities, but he also shows that he’s grown as a writer by delivering those elements as part of a much more sophisticated plot that, at the same time, adds detail and depth to the setting.

Low Town introduced a fascinating (if not exactly likable) character and a grim fantasy world, but left much about them vague and undefined. Tomorrow, the Killing begins to fill in some of those tantalizing gaps, which lends this sequel a sense of scale that was missing from its predecessor. Polansky’s characters, mostly static in the first book, are now also beginning to evolve in interesting ways. I’ll leave the details for you to find out, but let’s just say that I’m quite eager to see where their trajectories will take them.

If you enjoy dark, gritty fantasy and missed Low Town/The Straight Razor Cure when it was released last year, now is the perfect time to rectify the situation. Its brand new sequel, Tomorrow, the Killing, shows that Daniel Polansky is an author to watch for the future.

Stefan Raets reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. His website is Far Beyond Reality.


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