Tomorrow, The Killing by Daniel Polansky
|Book Name:||Tomorrow, The Killing|
|Publisher(s):||Hodder & Stoughton|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback|
|Release Date:||October 11, 2012|
Writer’s Note: This review DOES NOT contain any spoilers for The Straight Razor Cure, the first book in this series. Or any spoilers for Tomorrow, The Killing. You’re welcome.
Tomorrow, The Killing, the excellent second entry in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series, isn’t about heroism. Or antiheroes. It isn’t about any of the things one normally finds in a fantasy novel–good, evil, magic, dragons, etc. It isn’t about war (although there is war). It isn’t about love (although that’s in there, too). It isn’t about death (believe me, death abounds). Tomorrow, The Killing is about survival.
Against the backdrop of political unrest and in the shadow of a Great War twenty years ended, Polansky tears into the psyche and soul of the man called The Warden in an attempt to discover whether a man can—or should—survive his past.
Picking up three years after the events of The Straight Razor Cure, the Warden finds himself still running his minor criminal empire from The Staggering Earl, his Low Town inn and domicile. He is still nasty, still haunted, still huffing Pixie’s Breath to get through the day. His temperament has, perhaps, soured. His razor tongue and inclination toward verbal abuse are as present as ever. He is a neither a rogue nor a scoundrel—those would imply a wink and a smile that simply don’t grace his countenance. He’s a hard man. Yet he remains surrounded by those who care for him, and for whom he cares as well. But domestic bliss, as such it is in Low Town, still eludes the Warden and his cadre of misfits.
Adolphus, the Warden’s brother-in-arms from the War and best friend, has fallen in with a highly political Veteran’s organization intent on reminding the powers that be in Rigus just what was sacrificed in the war. With extreme prejudice, if necessary. Adeline, Adolphus’ loving wife and long-suffering target of the Warden’s vitriol, is in constant worry over the maturation and education of the foundling Wren, who is growing into a moody—and powerful—young man. And she doesn’t care for her husband’s latest political awakening. Meanwhile, the Warden is about to be thrust back into the thick of Rigan political intrigue, despite his best efforts at apathy. All is not quiet, as it were.
Jumpstarted by a request to seek out the runaway daughter of a high-ranking Rigan general, the Warden quickly finds himself mired in a tangled web of intrigue, murder and political machination. He stands at the nexus of it all, connected to each seemingly random event by a past with both the grand army of Rigus and the secret police of Black House, from which he was turned out in disgrace.
The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward. What starts as a mystery regarding a runaway girl of high birth quickly turns into a harrowing tale of gang warfare and political unrest. Polansky’s focus on the issue of veterans’ rights is a fascinating choice, and one heretofore unexplored in such detail in a genre novel. By focusing on the plight of the Rigan veterans, Polansky is able to deftly interweave flashback scenes of the Great War itself, which readers of the first novel will appreciate. But even if The Straight Razor Cure is your first foray into Low Town, you will find that the flashbacks offer more insight into the Warden as a man than they do into the history surrounding the War. And it is in the evolution of the Warden as a character that Polansky truly shines.
Let’s call a spade a spade–it doesn’t take much talent to write a saint or a prick. Characters that are unwaveringly heroic or perpetually villainous are boring. They’re also difficult to relate to on a personal level because most of us live a greyer existence than your typical magical sword-wielding farm boy or practitioner of the dark arts. Polansky deftly navigates the grey waters between the two. On the surface, The Warden is (in the literary sense) an antihero. He’s a criminal, a drug dealer, an addict and a murderer. He’s also human, and it is the Warden’s humanity that makes him such an interesting—and ultimately relatable–character.
Polansky has built a layered narrative that succeeds in advancing the plot of the story while slowly, almost painfully, drawing back the curtain on the true heart and soul of the Warden. Whether the times shaped the man or the man conformed to the times, the War and what came after fundamentally changed the Warden, and with each flashback scene, Polansky reveals more of the Warden’s present motivations. Suddenly the Warden’s personality, his tics, his anger dressed as apathy—they all make perfect sense. And the reader is left to ponder whether the Warden has changed for the better, or the worse.
And that unanswered question lies at the core of the Warden’s character. He is a man, and he wants to survive to see tomorrow. It may be better, it may be worse—but unless he lives to see it, he’ll never know. His failures—and they are many and egregious—spur him on as much as they haunt him. And his fierce love of life begins to shine through. Some may argue that the Warden simply wants to drug himself into oblivion, but to my mind Polansky has made a definitive statement to the contrary with this book. The Warden wants to live, and for a man that has spent most of his life at the end of his rope, that is no small feat. There is a degree of hubris involved, to be sure, but a fundamental capacity for love, long atrophied, emerges as a motivating force. The Warden loves his friends, loves his city, and while he may not be emotionally equipped to allow his loved ones to thrive, he feels obligated to ensure their continued existence. He can do that much. It is no coincidence that he’s called the Warden.
As plots thicken and unravel, the Warden’s desire for some degree of justice for those fallen, and some degree of peace for his friend and ward, push him to make decisions even the hardest of men would shy away from. Polansky makes it clear that while the Warden may not be an evil man, he has committed evil acts. And the first person narrative structure allows the reader to peek into the Warden’s brain to see how those acts—and the difficult choices that precipitated many of them—have taken root in the soul of a man that, ultimately, has more checks on the “good” side of the ledger than the “evil.”
Polansky has crafted a pseudo-noir novel set in a fantastical world that is boiling over with intrigue. The threat of violence simmers just below the surface at all times, and when it boils over—whether on a large scale or intimately—the brutal world of Low Town comes into sharp focus. And throughout it all, the Warden endures. In Tomorrow, The Killing, Polansky is ultimately exploring whether the past holds us back, moves us forward, or simply allows us to survive. Luckily for us, he hasn’t found the answer.