Low Town: Love the setting and the tone

SFF book reviews Daniel Polansky Low TownSFF book reviews Daniel Polansky Low TownLow Town (The Straight Razor Cure) by Daniel Polansky

FORMAT/INFO: Low Town is 352 pages long divided over 49 numbered chapters. Narration is in the first person, exclusively via a thirty-five year old crime lord/drug dealer/junkie named the Warden. Low Town is self-contained, but is the first volume in a series. August 16, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Low Town via Doubleday. The UK edition will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on August 18, 2011 under the title The Straight Razor Cure.

ANALYSIS: Daniel Polansky’s Low Town is categorized as ‘noir fantasy’. What is noir fantasy? In my mind, it’s when Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett meet the fantastic — magic, the supernatural, and so forth. Combining noir with fantasy is hardly a new concept. China Miéville‘s The City & The City, Jeff VanderMeer‘s Finch, Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. series, Hellblazer, The Vampire Files by P.N. Elrod, Simon R. Green’s Nightside, Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels… these are just a few of the many examples to be found. As far as noir fantasy goes, Low Town doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but Daniel Polansky’s debut is still one of the subgenre’s better efforts.

What impressed me the most about Low Town was the setting. Of the noir fantasies that I’ve read, the majority of them — urban fantasy novels in particular — take place in an alternate version of our world where magic and the paranormal are real. Not Low Town. Low Town is set in a fully realized secondary world complete with its own races and countries (Dren, Islanders, Kirens, Rouender, Asher, Tarasaihgn, Vaalan, Miradin, Nestria), currency (ochres, argents), gods and religion (Church of Prachetas, the Lost One, the Firstborn, Oathkeeper, the Daevas, Śakra), narcotics (pixie’s breath, dreamvine, wyrm, Daeva’s honey, ouroboros root), history, et cetera. The focus of this world is the city of Rigus with its different neighborhoods and districts including Kirentown, Kor’s Heights, and of course, Low Town itself.

Even though Daniel Polansky’s novel takes place in a fantasy world, it’s a familiar backdrop. That’s because the author draws inspiration from real people, cities and history. As a result, Rigus feels like a cross between 19th century London and some major American city (Los Angeles, New York City) from the 1930s/40s, while the Red Fever and the war with the Dren brought to mind the Great Plague and World War I. Also recognizable are the book’s depictions of social stratification, racism, crime, and police corruption & bureaucracy. In some instances, the author does little more than change a name — Kirens are Asians, Islanders are black people, dreamvine is marijuana — but even this small of an effort makes a difference. Personally, I felt the secondary world injected flavor into the novel’s noir elements, while the familiarity of the setting made it easier to become immersed in the world of Low Town.

Magic, meanwhile, exists in the form of the Art, sorcerers (Crane the First Sorcerer of the Realm; Celia, Sorcerer First Rank; Brightfellow), scryers, the Crown’s Eye, wards to protect the city from the plague, and a gargoyle that guards the entrance to the Aerie. To be honest, between Crane, the Bureau of Magical Affairs and the Academy for the Furtherance of the Magical Arts, magic in Low Town reminded me a little bit of Harry Potter, which seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. To make matters worse, there’s not even that much magic in the book to begin with, and of the little magic that does show up, it’s either not explained or developed very well by the author, or it’s told about (the wards, using the Crown’s Eye) rather than shown.

Besides the setting, I also loved the tone of the book. A lot of authors have tried to emulate Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but not everyone can pull it off. Daniel Polansky does so with ease, with the characters, story and milieu of Low Town all delightfully drenched in hard-boiled noir. In other words, Low Town is dark, gritty and morally ambivalent. Of course, the highlight is easily Warden with his grim history — survivor of the Fever, the streets and war; gave up a successful career in law enforcement to live a life of crime — and a riveting first-person narrative that reflects the protagonist’s sarcastic sense of humor, moral ambivalence, and cynical attitudes:

  • Everything’s always clearer in hindsight. If I had the day to do over again, I would try to avoid getting my ass kicked.
  • People are fools. You don’t need a prophet to tell the future. Look at yesterday, then look at today. Tomorrow is likely to be the same, and the day after.
  • We went to war because going to war is fun, because there’s something in the human breast that trills at the thought, although perhaps not the reality, of murdering its fellows in vast numbers. Fighting a war ain’t fun — fighting a war is pretty miserable. But starting a war? Hell, starting a war is better than a night floating on Daeva’s honey.
  • I learned something back then, something about the nature of crime, and of the things people do that are meant to remain hidden. Solving a mystery isn’t about finding clues or getting lucky with a suspect — it’s about deciding what to look for, framing the narrative in your mind. If you can puzzle out the questions, the answers will come.

The supporting cast includes some interesting morally gray characters including the bartender Adolphus, Wren the street urchin, Crane the First Sorcerer of the Realm, Celia, Warden’s ex-partner Crispin, the Smiling Blade, Crowley, the Old Man, Yancey the Rhymer, the Kiren crime lord Ling Chi, Mairi the Dark-Eyed, the scryer Marieke and Dr. Kendrick. Sadly, none of these characters are very well developed. Since Low Town is written in the first person, this is not exactly a major surprise. Nevertheless, I wish the author had done more to flesh out Warden’s relationship and history with Crane, Celia and Crispin, especially considering their importance to the novel.

Plot-wise, Low Town features a murder mystery that forces Warden’s current life as a crime lord, drug dealer and junkie to collide with his former life as an agent and Special Ops of the Crown. Surprisingly, the murder mystery is not the novel’s main attraction. Instead, Warden’s history is the more compelling story line, which is revealed through various flashbacks — life on the streets after his parents died of the plague and his sister was killed; enlisting in the war at nineteen years old; participating in the secret mission that ended the war with the Dren Commonwealth — although the author leaves a few matters unanswered, like why Warden left the Crown’s service in the first place or how he took over Low Town. The problems with Low Town’s central mystery — Who is kidnapping and murdering Low Town children, and why? — are obvious red herrings, spoiler-ish foreshadowing, and a surprise twist that is very easy to figure out. The ending is also somewhat disappointing due to its truncated resolution and unsettled issues.

CONCLUSION: Daniel Polansky’s Low Town is far from perfect. As noir fantasy, the book is fairly conventional, formulaic even. As a debut, Low Town is rough around the edges — supporting characters lack depth, magic is unoriginal and underdeveloped, and the story’s ending and central mystery fail to deliver. Yet, despite all of that, I loved Low Town. I loved the setting. I loved the characters. I loved the noir. And when the sequel is ready, I will love coming back to Low Town and continuing Warden’s tale…

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ROBERT THOMPSON (on FanLit's staff July 2009 — October 2011) is the creator and former editor of Fantasy Book Critic, a website dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction. Before FBC, he worked in the music industry editing Kings of A&R and as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. Besides reading and music, Robert also loves video games, football, and art. He lives in the state of Washington with his wife Annie and their children Zane and Kayla. Robert retired from FanLit in October 2011 after more than 2 years of service. He doesn't do much reviewing anymore, but he still does a little work for us behind the scenes.

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  1. Sounds like something I’d like!

  2. New authors are always fun.

  3. I hope you get a chance to read the book Marion!

    I can’t quite explain it Tobias, but I love reading debuts and discovering new authors. I think it’s the sense of not knowing what to expect…

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