She Who Waits by Daniel Polansky
|Book Name:||She Who Waits|
|Publisher(s):||Hodder & Stoughton|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / eBook|
|Release Date:||October 31, 2013 (UK) December 1, 2013 (US)|
Editor’s Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the entire Low Town trilogy.
If you search for “define warden” on Google, you’ll get the following: a person responsible for the supervision of a particular place or thing or for ensuring that regulations associated with it are obeyed.
Clearly, The Warden was not misnamed.
She Who Waits is the third (and final?) installment of Polansky’s Low Town series and is, no doubt, the best of the lot. Equal parts heart and heartbreak, She Who Waits transcends the series’ fantasy-noir roots and elevates the story into literary tragedy territory. Themes of love, death and family provide the foundation for a novel that, unlike the first two books in the series, answers far more questions than it asks, and in doing so completes the portrait of a man called The Warden.
Masterfully dovetailing past and present through exquisite use of flashbacks and the first-person narrative, Polansky once again lets the Warden tell his tale using his own colorful vernacular. And in She Who Waits, those words take on a weight that was far less pronounced in the first two installments. Because Polansky has finally gotten to the heart of the matter: the titular “She Who Waits.” And now she has a name.
But is that name Albertine or death? By the end of the book, Polansky provides the answer.
The specters of both Albertine and death hang over She Who Waits like a fog. Over the course of the book, as Polansky begins to burn that fog away with the harsh light of full disclosure, we finally learn the details of the Warden’s dismissal from Black House. We learn just what kind of animal the Old Man really is. And we learn that the Warden isn’t the cold, almost sociopathic, cynic he would have his wards believe. Turns out that the Warden has a capacity for love that is as dangerous and destructive as his capacity for self-delusion.
Ostensibly a combination heist/political thriller, She Who Waits reads more like a codebook. In it, we’re given the keys to truly understand the first two novels, along with the events of the third. Whether dealing with Wren, Adolphus, Yancey the Rhymer or some third-rate street tough, the Warden’s actions take on a paternal sheen. Polansky subtly—but definitively—provides motivation for all of the Warden’s actions in the conflagration about to take place.
Certainly, the Warden’s ability to succumb to his baser desires is still firmly intact, as evidenced by a drug-fueled rampage that can only be described as epic in scope. He’s a violent man, a petty man and a dangerous man—but he’s a man that has known love, known family and known how it feels to have those things ripped away. It isn’t an excuse, but with his past laid bare, it is beyond difficult to blame the Warden for his transgressions. And therein lies the genius of Polansky’s writing. In all the blood, guts, drugs and brutality, Polansky has hidden a man that may not be good, but unequivocally isn’t evil. He’s human. Heartbreakingly so.
I haven’t touched on plot much, but then it isn’t the plot that makes She Who Waits such an achievement. The plot is much the same as in the first two books—political unrest, shakeups in the criminal underworld, the vague presence of supernatural forces at work—Polansky checks all the boxes and tosses the Warden in the middle of it all. The plot serves the broader narrative, which is the arc of the Warden’s adult life. Suffice it to say that there is plenty to like about the story, but even more to love about the characterization.
Fans of the first two Low Town books will no doubt love the third. I can’t really recommend that new fans start with She Who Waits because they’d be doing themselves—and the material—a gross disservice. But I would unequivocally recommend the entire trilogy to a new reader. It is, in my opinion, must-read material for any fan of fantasy.
She Who Waits is that rarest of fantasy achievements: it is a concluding novel that pays off on the promises made at the outset. Polansky has crafted a stunning conclusion to the Warden’s tale that will leave you breathless and aching for just one more page, one more chapter, one more hit of breath. It is the best book I’ve read this year. I give it all the stars.