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Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Low Town by Daniel Polansky
3.5
Book Name: Low Town
Author: Daniel Polansky
Publisher(s): Anchor
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Release Date: August 7, 2012

One thing is for certain. Low Town is not your typical fantasy book. Sure, it’s got wizards, magic and demons but this book owes more to Raymond Chandler than Tolkien. If Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves was a first tentative step towards Fantasy Crime Noir, this book runs straight at it, kicks down the door and stomps on everything within. It’s nasty, brutal, take-no-prisoners fiction and, if you’ve the stomach for it, an enthralling read.

Low Town is the part of Rigus, the finest city in the Thirteen Lands, which most people want to forget about. It’s home to the poor, the destitute and all the unlawful elements of society. It’s where only the strong survive and that’s only if they are lucky. It’s also the place of business for the Warden, an army veteran and independent drug dealer who has no problem getting high on his own supply.

The Warden is also a disgraced former agent of the secret police and, when a child is murdered in horrible circumstances, his instincts tell him something is even more horribly wrong in Low Town than usual. His private investigation doesn’t go down too well with his former colleagues though and many of them would happily add the Warden’s name to the list of casualties.

Even the Warden admits he is not your typical handsome hero.

“A lumpen nose dripped below overlarge eyes, a mouth like a knife wound set off-center. Enhancing my natural charms are an accumulation of scars that would shame a masochist, an off-color line running up my cheek from where an artillery shard had come a few inches from laying me out, the torn flesh of my left ear testifying to a street brawl where I’d taken second place.”

He’s under no illusions as to the way the world works but his cynicism is colored by a very black sense of humor. Despite everything, he’s also maintained a sense of what is right and wrong, however warped they might be, that forces him to get involved when all common sense says otherwise.

The Warden has a motley crew of people helping him but being friends with the Warden is a double-edged sword. As Yancy, a minstrel, puts it so eloquently, “You fuck shit up, it’s all you ever do. You a poison – everyone you meet is worse for it, you know that?” The sad thing is the Warden does know but there’s not much he can do about it. Not everyone has his unique skills to survive in the sewers of life and that’s where events take him.

The whodunit element of Low Town isn’t particularly surprising. Anyone who’s familiar with noir etiquette can probably spot what’s going on before things fall into place for the Warden, but the freshness of the fantasy setting and the Warden’s personality make the book hard to put down. Yes, the Warden is a low-life thug but he’s one hell of a charming thug. It’s no surprise he sets the odd heart fluttering despite his ravaged looks and why his friends stick by him despite how dangerous he makes life.

It’s hard to suggest an equivalent historical time period for Low Town, as Polansky seems to have merged elements together in his worldbuilding in much the same way he’s mashed up genres and, as a result, it takes awhile to get one’s bearings. The characters smoke cigarettes (this is noir after all) and they speak and swear in a very 21st Century way. The army uses artillery but most people are armed with blades of one length or another. The police could easily come from the early days of the industrial revolution and the wizards would not be out of place at dinner with Gandalf. However, once everything settles into place, it is apparent Polansky has created a very rich environment for countless adventures to come. As with the best crime noir, Low Town is as much a part of the Warden as Los Angeles is to Philip Marlowe.

My only complaint really is the treatment of ethnic characters in the book. Low Town is a multi-racial city which is rare in fantasy and should be applauded but the Kiren and the Islanders are so negatively stereotyped that is was almost offensive. One could argue that as the book is told through the Warden’s eyes, it is simply a reflection on how he sees the world but it was very disappointing in a book this good.

Low Town won’t be for everyone. Even fans of Abercrombie’s gritty fantasy may find it hard going, but in the Warden, Polansky has created a drug-snorting, foul-mouthed, wrecking ball of a character that I hope will be around for a long time to come. Fantasy needs shaking up and pulled out of its comfort zone and the Warden is just the guy to do it.

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One Comment

  1. Avatar Jamie GIbbs says:

    I loved Low Town, and the sequel was just as good. Polansky was my first real foray into dark gritty fantasy, and I loved every second of it. Warden’s black humour and constant cynicism were brilliant to read.

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