Review by John for: Low Town ~ by Daniel Polansky
A dystopian fantasy novel rolled up with a hard boiled, crime thriller; with a huge dollop of noir thrown in for good measure. Set in an alternate world that is a cross between medieval times and a drug-infested 21st century slum, the story features drug dealers, hustlers, corrupt cops, dirty politics, a plague…..and sorcery.
About: Low Town is a beaten up, downtrodden, brutal, squalid slum, peopled by the unfortunate and those who exploit them. Rife with drugs, gangs and corrupt officials, Low Town is also the home of the Warden – our “hero” – who is a disgraced detective-cum-intelligence agent, an ex-war hero, and a current independent drug dealer who likes sampling his own products.
Neither wholly good nor wholly bad, the Warden definitely comes in several shades of gray. But when he happens upon a young girl who has been brutally murdered, he is thrust on a quest to find the perpetrators and to rid Low Town of some unspeakable evil. The trouble is, he doesn’t know who he can trust and he seems to make more enemies at every turn.
When he realizes that the murder (which is just the first of several) somehow revolves around some bad magic and demons, he turns to the Blue Crane, his old mentor who is an ancient sorcerer charged with trying to keep the city plague-free.
John’s thoughts: I’m not usually big on fantasy as a genre, but the unusual (unique?) mixture of fantasy and noir thriller looked interesting so I decided to give this one a go. Come to think of it, I’m not usually a big fan of noir either, so there was definitely something appealing about the content and the book blurb.
And I’m glad that I did give it a go - this is an entertaining and clever story. Well-written, imaginative, darkly humorous and with lots of plot twists, the book pulls you along at a brisk pace. There are also lots of interesting characters, the main one being the Warden himself. Very much an anti-hero, he is a million miles removed from being squeaky clean, but you root for him nonetheless and somehow his dark side is kind of acceptable and almost forgivable. At the end of the story everything is wrapped up neatly, but the things which were neither black nor white remain as various shades of gray. (By the way – do you ever wonder why the genre is known as “noir”? I suppose I can see why, but I often think that gray is a more relevant color!)
It is also notable that this is Polansky’s first full-length novel. It’s darned good. And I do like his sense of humor. I saw an interview with him in which he was asked where the idea for Low Town came from. He responded “Honestly I sat down to write something a little more in line with the typical fantasy norms, but as it turns out I hate elves so I realized I needed to do something different. I guess I liked the idea of introducing a faster pace to a genre that tends to bloat a little, and Low Town seemed like one way to do it”.
Overall, I’d rate this 3.5 stars and I’d recommend it to readers with lots of different tastes. If you like any or all of fantasy, noir, crime thriller or earthy urban tales, you should try this book. I’ll be looking out for more from Mr. Polansky.
Guest Post ~ Slums of the Shire
Occasionally you'll be with a group of people and they'll get to talking about their favorite historical epochs, nostalgic for lives they never led. One person will talk up their childhood love of the Wild West, another reveal a penchant for Victorian England. This last one just has a thing for corsets, but it's better not to call them on it.
When my turn rolls round I take a sip of whatever we're drinking and look at my shoes. “The mid 90's were pretty good,” I say lamely. “Slower internet and everything, but at least we had penicillin.”
Perhaps it's my being a history buff, but the past sucked. For about a millennium and a half after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe just seems like a real shit place to reside. Lots of rooting in filth until you die at thirty a half mile from where you born. Nominally the nobles had it better, but still, your fever would have been treated with the application of leaches and your pretty young bride had like a one in two chance of surviving child birth.
This probably is why I don't understand fantasy—that is to say that collection of high medieval tropes collected by Tolkien and gleefully reproduced by two generations of descendants.
Take elves for instance—though perfectly capable of imagining a world where higher intelligence evolved in a species separate from humanity, my powers of make believe fail when positing that the relation between said species would be anything beyond unceasing warfare. Even a cursory glance at human history reveals our collective willingness to commit genocide on fellow homo sapiens—how much quicker would we have been to eradicate a separate species competing for identical resources? If elves existed, our ancestors would have hunted them down to extinction and erected a monument to the accomplishment.
But I digress.
Even when nestled comfortably in a quest to kill a dragon or overthrow a dark lord or what have you, strange thoughts plague me. What does the shady side of Gondor look like? How many platinum coins would a dime bag set me back? What is the point of hobbits? They're just short, fat people. People are plenty fat as it is.
Low Town is sort of my attempt to answer some of those questions (not the last one). It's the story of the Warden, a former intelligence agent and current drug dealer, whose gradual slide into self-destruction is briefly checked by the discovery of a dead body in the neighborhood he runs. An ill-timed bout of conscience rattles the easy cage of venality he's built for himself, and leads him on a collision course with the life he'd left behind. The Warden is a guy trying to survive the next few days, and not particularly squeamish as to what that requires—the sort of person more likely to populate a classic crime novel than to be found stocking the fantasy section of your local Borders (RIP).
More broadly, Low Town is an attempt to meld the best aspects of noir with a low fantasy setting—a meeting of tastes which I think complement each other nicely. The spare language and fast pace of good noir offers a pleasant counterpoint to the sprawling—one might even say bloated—length of much modern fantasy. On a somewhat broader level, the tendency of fantasy to focus on world shaking events often renders it irrelevant to the average reader, whose life relatively rarely devolves into single combat against vaguely satanic analogs. By contrast, noir is concerned with the individual, with greed and lust, sins all of us can comprehend to some degree. Low Town centers on the conceit that a world with magic wouldn't be altogether different from a world without it. People are still (on the whole) selfish, stupid creatures, focused almost exclusively on the immediate satisfaction of their basic desires, only now some of them can shoot fire out of their hands.
That's the idea at least. The English edition is now in stores throughout the world, and translations are coming soon in twelve other languages. I hope you check it out and see if I've succeeded, or if I'm just a pretentious clown. Or both. www.DanielPolansky.com
As always John will be addressing comments for his review – so please remember to check the follow up box to get his reply.
One more day! What fun stuff do you have planned for Halloween?