Book Review “Low Town”
I’m a huge fan of crime fiction especially the hardboiled, dark morally, complex kind. So it’s always fun to see it merged with other genres. Back in the days of the pulp magazines writer Robert E Howard began to write fantasy stories that incorporated elements and some of the style of the crime fiction of writers like Dashiell Hammett. The result was a cool character driven fantasy sub genre called “Sword and Sorcery” and in his debut novel “Low Town” writer Daniel Polansky leans into the crime fiction elements of Sword and Sorcery to tell an immensely satisfying noir tale about crime and justice in a world where magic and monsters, of both the human and supernatural, variety are a reality.
In “Low Town” Polansky takes readers to a world divided by 13 different lands where technology and society isn’t exactly medival, but it’s not exactly the industrial revolution either. The largest metropolis in this world is Rigus. In the wealthier areas of Rigus crime and corruption occur behind closed doors, but in Low Town, an impoverished district of back alleys and slums it occurs out in the open. In fact, The Warden, Polansky’s protagonist makes a living off of it as Low Town’s premier, independent drug dealer.
In the Warden, Polansky has given readers a fascinating and flawed protagonist. As the story unfolds we never find out his real name, but we discover he’s a man that’s been so wounded by his past, that he has trouble not lashing out at his friends and family. That past includes his time on the streets as an almost feral orphan after a plague ravaged Low Town and killed much of it’s adult population. It also includes time spent as a soldier in a bloody World War I style conflict, which only served to harden his cynicism even more. The final piece in the puzzle of the Warden’s hardened world view was his time spent as a cop and an intelligence agent. His expulsion from that career lead to his new path as a a salesmen of illicit pharmaceuticals, which he often indulges in when the ghosts of his past start to haunt him too much.
So the Warden is a jaded and cynical man, but he’s not heartless. He’s reminded of this fact in the early pages of “Low Town” when he discovers the body of a murdered child. The murder reawakens his sense of justice and causes him to launch an unofficial investigation that will have combing the back alleys of Low Town and the wealtheir areas of Rigus in search of Justice.
The past of both the Warden and Rigus are integral to the plot of “Low Town,” but they don’t over power the narrative. Polansky deals out these revelations in an expert way so they never feel like an exposition dump. The book is told in first person narration by the Warden so whenever you get clues about his past of the city they are always colored by an interesting perspective. These past revelations are not done chronologically either, which makes them feel organic. Also they’re often small tantalizing bits. Where some fantasy stories would spend a chapter detailing a significant event in the history of their setting Polansky gives you a few paragraphs or pages. Occasionally he’ll expand on those revelations later and some times he’ll leave them dangling to pick up perhaps later in a sequel or for readers to decide themselves. A particularly effective example of this comes when readers learn how the Warden became such a popular drug dealer. You’re given just a hint of a fascinating and bloody story that could be revisited later.
As readers of “Low Town” learn about the past and present of the Warden they also meet some pretty fascinating characters. Like Adolphus, a tavern owner and one of the few friends the Warden has left; and the Crane an eccentric sorcerer that uses his magic to protect the people of Low Town, and served as a surrogate father for the Warden during his teenage years. Polansky also does something remarkable in that he gives the Warden a young helper in the form of a child named Wren and that character is not irritating. Wren is a child and occasionally does dumb stuff, but when he does it feels organic and no less intelligent that some of the other adult characters’ actions. Plus he’s a pretty capable criminal in his own right.
Another element Polansky handles exceptionally well in “Low Town” is magic. In the book magic is a resource that offers some benefits, but it’s often an unsettling or unnatural force. Especially in the scenes where spell casters are working dark and powerful magic. Polansky tackles these scenes and the forces they occasionally summon in a way similar to horror master H.P. Lovecraft. Some of the criminals in “Low Town” summon sinister and powerful forces and when these forces make themselves known it’s in a shadowy but horrifying way. So the reader is left with a fun and creepy sense of dread.
All these elements combine together to make a powerful and immensely satisfying crime-fantasy hybrid. With his Joe Pitt series of novels writer Charlie Huston expertly blended the conventions of the crime novel and vampire stories and Polansky does something similar and equally powerful with his debut novel. I hope the writer has more adventures planned for The Warden because I would love the chance to revisit the mean streets of “Low Town.”