Low Town: A Novel by Daniel Polansky

“I remember the lightning in the air and the lover bidding good-bye in the streets, and I can tell you what I think. We went to war because going to war is fun, because there’s something in the human breast that trills at the thought, although perhaps not the reality, of murdering its fellows in vast numbers. Fighting a war ain’t fun—fighting a war is pretty miserable. But starting a war? Hell, starting a war is better than a night floating on Daeva’s honey.”

Many people have called this piece of literature “Fantasy Noir,” but I would argue that it isn’t that. With all the dark workings, the sarcasm, and the action aplenty, Low Town is not a work of Fantasy Noir. Maybe Noir Fantasy, making the crime feel and blackness of it all forefront, even if the magic, an integral part of Fantasy, is center to the mystery.

More importantly, however, Low Town is a story about the Warden, a man with a checkered past, just trying to survive till tomorrow, snort a vial of pixie dust, and trample downstairs for some eggs and coffee at noon.

1st person being the narrative of this story, the Warden’s voice is central to the experience, all his black humor and cynicism working great. If you’re squeamish about violence and profanity, this is not the book for you. Children are killed, morals are grayed, and demons are released in this corner of Rigus, the capital of an ink-blotted empire.

“’I didn’t make my reputation stabbing noblemen on shaped grass. I made it in the dark, in the streets, without a crew of courtiers clapping their support or a rule book to let me know procedure.’”

Profanity, though, showed up at the worst of times. It was jarring, unnecessary. It detracted from the story, not making the tone any better than it already was. Maybe if the language was scaled back a bit, there would’ve been greater punch to every time he cursed.

Setting is a bit vague, however, not a known thing in Fantasy circles. While it works for the 1st person narrative, I would have liked to see more of the outside world, learned more about the land than the Chinese-esque Kiren or the war with the Dren that defined the man.

Staying on that idea of the Kiren, I will make my one complaint to the community of reviewers of this book. People claim the Warden’s attitude toward the people is racism. Crowley’s I could see, him being a nasty antagonist and all. But the Warden?

He is a cynical, hateful character. Just because he calls one kind of people idiots does not make him racist. He calls everybody idiots. He does not discriminate with flinging insults.

Minor rant aside, the plot was another shortcoming for me.

“I’ve got too much on my mind to worry about teaching ethics to a stray dog.”

We have a great tone, remarkable in fact, a great character and his voice, great cast, and amazing ideas racked with fantastic realism. What Polansky does not have is that great of a plot.

While it works, pacing moving the story along fairly quickly, the resolution to the mystery, a whodunit, didn’t work for me; it was predictable.

In a story rife with few details than say, the usual Epics, one stood out for me.

Add in the trappings of a noirish cliché, and have my reasonings toward the ending.

And chapter endings: I have never read a book with such indifference to chapter endings. Polansky would probably do to simply get rid of the barriers, continuing the story as it is. The middle of them are full of tension and fun, but the endings fall very flat. The book’s ending, while nothing on a first go, can be appreciated for its poignancy and melancholy after a reread.

That is what this book takes to truly enjoy. A reread. From there do you begin to understand all the failings of the mystery, of the writing, and such.

But when it comes to clichés, Polansky makes the best of them, turning them on their head. Take for instance noir’s love of rain. What to do now? Make it snow, chill you to the bones, great for this cold story.

“’You’re a cold man.’

‘It’s a cold world. I’ve just adjusted to the temperature.’”

Like Richard Kadrey, Daniel Polansky writes stories about characters. While his plot could do with some work, for a debut this is top notch. The Warden’s voice is quite possibly the best 1st person narrative I have ever read.

Be warned. This is like the genre: Noir, black.

But man is the darkness amazing.

Rating: 7.5/10

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