Friday, December 27, 2013

She Who Waits by Daniel Polansky

My review of the final Lowtown novel is likely to be the shortest review I've ever written for a novel I enjoyed so thoroughly. But delving too deep into this story would risk spoilers, so I'm forced into brevity.  I loved the preceding two volumes of the Lowtown trilogy and was both excited and saddened to know that my time with the one of the most irredeemable and yet most compelling protagonists I've ever encountered was coming to a close. Polansky has been labelled as a 'writer's writer' by folks with far more education and experience than I, but I would go one step further and say that these novels are perfectly suited to any reasonably well read person who isn't likely to be put off by a novel that takes a long, unflinching flinching look at the darkest parts of society and human nature. These books aren't easy to read, they are violent and profane with hardly a decent person in sight, but they are so compellingly well written and so deft in their observations about the cold facts of human nature that it's a definite shame they haven't found a wider audience.

But to get to the specifics of She Who Waits, this final volume takes place six years after the last installment. Warden and all of the other principles introduced in the series are getting older, and most none too gracefully. Warden is still doing what he does best, running his criminal enterprise from the shadows and sticking his nose in where it doesn't belong. The kingdom is on the verge with powerful forces angling for control of a weak monarchy and Warden quickly finds himself planted firmly on top of a powder keg. Being manipulated by his former employer, the secret police of Black House, while he manipulates them in turn, Warden is drawn into a dangerous game of uncertain allegiances and deadly stakes once more. Complicating matters is the reemergence of only woman he ever loved, the person responsible for his fall from the halls of power. With the lives of his loved ones hanging in the balance, it seems doubtful even the crafty Warden can escape the coming explosion unscathed.

As always, Polansky's prose is the star of the show. Tight and poetic, gritty and somehow beautiful the musings of Warden are certain to stick with you well past the final pages. Warden is no angel, and is simply struggling to do right by the people he loves, at piece with the contradictions of his hedonistic and wicked ways. That dichotomy is the secret to Warden's success as a protagonist. Readers may not like him, but they'd be hard pressed not to understand him.  As tired and weary as he is in this final volume, Warden's wit is still razor and readers will find themselves chuckling even in the novel's darkest moments. Fans of the grimdark movement will find much to enjoy in Polansky's protagonist.

Those who have read the preceding volumes, will certainly not be surprised by the twist and turns of the plot and Warden's often inscrutable maneuverings as he fights the long odds again. But as always, all is eventually made clear and then we're off to the races as the novel reaches its unavoidably brutal climax. There are flashbacks to Warden's past, though they seem to take up far less space in this volume. I would have liked more back story, but didn't feel cheated at all. We are given exactly what the story demands and nothing more. As with the end of most series, there is death and betrayal and reversals of fortune. I felt that some of the deaths were robbed of their significance and emotional impact, but having such a tight narrative focus and the framing of the take, there really was no way an observant reader couldn’t have seen it coming.

In many ways, She Who Waits delivers exactly what fans of the series have come to expect and the end while perhaps disappointing to some should come as no surprise. I personally would have felt cheated with anything less than the eventual outcome. Polansky has managed to create a world and character that will live in my mind beyond the confines of the story, and he wisely leaves us wanting more. Polansky remains one of the most undervalued writers in fantasy today, and I wish him greater successes in the next stage of his career. I certainly will be in line for whatever story comes next.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff. Edges close to homophobia and racism at a couple points, but I'll chalk that up to character traits. Must read if you like fantasy espionage noir with your confident writing.

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