Friday, February 08, 2013

"Low Town" by Daniel Polansky-- Strong New Voice in Noir Fantasy

Low Town by Danial Polansky follows the recent trend of noir-ish fantasy that is often put into the "gritty, grimdark" category but actually has as much in common with The Dresden Files as anything by Joe Abercrombie-- which is a good thing.

~Official Synopsis

Drug dealers, hustlers, brothels, dirty politics, corrupt cops . . . and sorcery. Welcome to Low Town.

In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its cham­pion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent. Forgotten war hero. Independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.

The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his dis­covery of a murdered child down a dead-end street . . . set­ting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investi­gated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psy­chotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted.

Depending on how a book tries to fit the "gritty" mold, I can be a big fan of the genre. Authors like Alex Bledsoe ("Sword Edged Blonde," "Dark Jenny") and Douglas Hulick ("Among Thieves") have written some of my favorite books in the past few years and their strength lies in their ability to cover some dark territory without pummeling the reader with too much graphic violence (though there is some), sex (rape especially) or language (again- some but not too much). Daniel Polansky shows a similar talent with his debut novel "Low Town."

The Warden, the antihero protagonist of "Low Town," sets the tone for the book with his first person narrative. He has the bad attitude and world-weary vibe that we've become accustomed to in this type of story, but Polansky writes in a voice that avoids too many clich├ęs and doesn't wear the reader out with too many cute moments designed to show us just how clever the main character can be. The characters are, in my opinion, always the most important thing The Warden is definitely the kind of personality that can easily take the lead in a long series of books.

As a former member of the secret police The Warden has had to leave his former life far, far behind to rationalize his current existence as a drug dealer. But when someone starts killing children in Low Town his experience as an investigator reminds him that he was once very skilled at his job and reacquaints him with his conscience. It's not as if a switch is flipped and he suddenly becomes a good guy-- he doesn't. But he does have a strong loyalty to Low Town and the people he has come to think of as family. Knowing there is a predator in his midst, preying only on the poorest children, isn't something he can ignore. He's a satisfying main character because he's not beyond being as corrupt as he needs to be to get the job done. He's also an addict, something that could chip away at the reader's sympathy, but in this context it seems somehow appropriate that the would-be savior of Low Town is also white-knuckling his way through life like everyone else around him.

Polansky also does a good job with the secondary characters, who mainly serve to effectively flesh out the history of the The Warden. Most of the people who surround him, friends and antagonists alike, are people who either served with him in the military or as part of the secret police. These people and their interactions with The Warden give us an insight into his character though they also hover on the edges of being a bit boilerplate (the precocious kid; the wizard mentor; the former partner; the helpful prostitute...) but they work in the context of the story and they are well developed in the sense that they all have distinct personalities and motives.

The world building in "Low Town" is interesting because it's well developed as part of its own universe while still borrowing heavily from our own recognizable cultures to populate the various ethnicities within Low Town itself. The heathens seem distinctly Chinese while I imagine the Islanders are from the Caribbean. I don't mention this as a criticism, but rather a curious deviation from what we normally see in a genre that seems to pride itself on creating as many bizarre creatures as possible. I liked this particular choice because it lends the narrative a sense of realism that's hard to nail down in book of this nature. The magic is also a very understated part of the story- it's there but The Warden isn't a magic practitioner and doesn't fall back on any convenient wizardry when things get complicated.

The only real complaint I have about "Low Town" is that it's somewhat predictable. About halfway through the book you get that niggling feeling in the back of your mind about certain characters and it's pretty easy to make accurate predictions about how the story is going to play out. And because "Low Town" is, at heart, a detective story you don't want to be able to see through the mystery so easily.

Overall I really liked "Low Town." For me the book succeeds because Polansky knows how to create create an atmosphere and set a mood that draws the reader in. I would have liked for the plot to have been tighter and less predictable, but I liked The Warden and I wanted to spend more time in Low Town. It's the kind of book that sets a firm foundation for a series that could have a very long life and if Polansky can tighten up his plotting to match the level of his characterizations this could be a series worth following.

4 out of 5 stars 

2 comments:

Blodeuedd said...

Sounds good, but what a boring cover, I am horrid and would walk past it

SQT said...

The cover makes no sense at all. The original cover was different-- not really better (just lettering) but it wasn't confusing like this one is. I can't, for the life of me, figure out what this cover is supposed to represent. The cover to the second book (Tomorrow the Killing) looks like a traditional fantasy cover and matches the vibe of the book- unlike this one.