I owe Myke Cole a drink, should I ever get the chance to meet him. It'll be a high dollar one too, no PBR for Mr. Cole. Not because I am a gushing fanboy (though that probably has some truth to it) but because of a tweet that led me to Daniel Polansky's fantastic debut novel, Low Town. When I saw Cole's assertion that he would buy Polansky's grocery lists, should he ever decide to publish them, I was intrigued. A quick glance at the synopsis, and I was set to go.
Describing Low Town in simple terms is more difficult than most fantasy novels. Imagine that Quentin Tarantino, possessed by the ghost of J.R.R. Tolkien, did an eight-ball of cocaine and wrote a novel to be read by the late Johnny Cash. Low Town is something like that, only better. I've heard it called noir fantasy. I suppose if you have to put a label on it that one will do. I just call it a trope-breaking tour-de-force with the elegant savagery of a rusted switchblade. But you can take your pick.
The book's back copy does an excellent job of setting the stage, so I'll leave it to the professionals this time.
Rigus is the greatest city in the Thirteen Lands, a glittering metropolis of crystalline citadels and sumptuous manors, where gentlewomen hide delicate smiles behind silken sleeves and bored nobles settle affairs of honor with cold steel. But light casts shadow, and in the darkness of the spires the baseborn struggle, eking out an existence amidst the cast-offs of their betters. This is Low Town, a sprawling warren of side streets and back alleys, of boarded up windows and false storefronts. Here the corner boys do a steady trade to the dead eyed and despairing, and a life can be bought with a clipped copper penny.
Low Town is an ugly place, and its champion is an ugly man. A former war hero and intelligence agent, now a crime lord addicted to cheap violence and expensive narcotics, the Warden spends his days hustling for customers and protecting his turf, until the chance discovery of a murdered child sets him on a collision course with the life he'd left behind. As bodies bloat in the canal and winter buries the city, he plays a desperate game of deception, pitting the underworld powers against his former colleagues in the secret police, hoping to find the source of the evil before it consumes him, and perhaps the city itself.
But virtue is rarely repaid in kind, and Low Town is no place for the righteous.
Sounds pretty awesome, right? Like other standouts in the sub-genre of fantasy with less than heroic protagonists, such as The Lies of Locke Lamora and Among Thieves, Low Town limits the setting to a narrow, but well realized area. The squalor and grit of Low Town is a tangible presence and Polanski milks it in every description, making the setting the most omnipresent character in the novel. Readers can almost feel the dirt collecting under their fingernails as they read and smell arcane sounding narcotics like dreamvine seem to linger in the air.
Polansky chooses an ugly man to tell an equally ugly story of drugs, foul sorcery, and murder. Warden's first person narrative is moody, tense, and unflinchingly honest. Readers may not like the drug addicted crime lord much, but Polansky makes sure they'll understand the path he's trod to become so broken. There is a filthy sort of poetry to Warden's voice as he riffs on the slum of his birth, his time spent in the military and as member of the feared intelligence agency, Black House. Warden is a broken addict with few real friends who sees no hope for redemption. He has no purpose other than to carve out a life of crime in between vials of pixie's breath and smoking dreamvine, until he is pulled into investigating a string murdered children that endangers not only his life but his callous and unfeeling existence.
Readers hoping for a story of redemption and real change in the character will find themselves disappointed though. Polanky seems to understand that, like in real life, addiction and recovery aren't easy and Warden's story arc, while showing glimmers of redemption and subtle character growth, reflect that reality. While it is easy to pull for Warden to get to the bottom of the mystery of the slaughtered children, hoping for Warden to return to the life he led before his addiction derailed his life is much harder. Nonetheless, Warden is a sympathetic and likeable narrator, largely because Polansky shows his admirable qualities through his interactions with the denizens of LowTown. Each character gets their moment to shine, either in action or by impacting our narrator in some significant way. A moment where the usually mild tempered and motherly Adeline gives Warden the sharp end of her tongue and the flat of her hand is a definite standout.
Of particular interests are Warden's interactions with Wren, a street urchin who is pulled into the former intelligence agent's wake through a chance encounter. The adolescent serves as a reflection of Warden's childhood living on the streets, more street tough and petty thief than precocious child. Though our protagonist takes great pains to appear to be more than comfortable letting Wren fend for himself, there is a glimmer of parental instinct and protectiveness that may be the fragile core of Warden's possible redemption. Rounding out the cast of Warden's extended and only family are Adolphos and his wife, Adeline, who tend the inn that Warden calls his home, and the patron sorcerer of Low Town, The Blue Crane and his apprentice, Celia, who figure heavily in Warden's childhood years. The Crane and Celia get more face time than their more common counterparts, but Polansky does an admirable job making all of these secondary characters have agendas and personalities that never seem created simply to toss the irascible Warden against.
The antagonists fair just as well. The heretic Ling Chi, with his insistence on courtly manners and maddening indirect way of speaking, was a standout, even if he is only marginally important to the main plotline. Lord Beaconfield, the principle antagonist, is gleefully unafraid of Warden's brutal reputation and is his equal not only in intelligence but in his taste for violence. Even conversations between the two read like a well orchestrated fight scene, with parries and ripostes that ring like invisible blades. We get to see Warden's former boss, the head of Black House. While he serves as a driving force for Warden's investigation and growing sense of peril, Polansky seems poised to use him to greater effect as the series continues.
The plot is fast paced with as many blind turns and reversals as the landscape of Low Town itself. The chases and battles are swift and packed with tension. Warden is a man who kills without rage, wrapped in a merciless practicality that life in Low Town demands. Polansky manages to inject enough of Warden's backstory to further flesh out his protagonist without slowing the plot in any noticeable way, leaving the reader without any excuse to stop reading. Polansky concludes with a twist ending that I suspected, though the telegraphing was fairly slight. That said, it was set up brilliantly and looses no points from me. In fact, it seems to be the only fitting end, as much as I wanted something else.
But for me the biggest selling point is Polansky's prose itself. Warden's narration is as dense a first person narration as I've ever seen. Every line of dialogue, exposition, and description seems to serve multiple masters; informing, suggesting, and adding to the mood of the novel. This tightness and attention to utility coupled with the obvious love for language gives Low Town a distinctive voice that, when blended with the weary cynicism of Warden's voice, marks Polansky as an author that genre fans would do well to watch. I've not been this excited about a new voice of fantasy since Patrick Rothfuss. Let's hope that the next Low Town novel, Tomorrow the Killing fares better than The Wise Man's Fear.