She Who Waits by Daniel Polansky

“It’s only at the end of things that you come to any appreciation for what you’ve let slide by.”

I have only read one other book this year with an ending so enthralling. Its name is Republic of Thieves.

About a month back, a genre review website launched the exclusive cover reveal for this book, to which I responded by contacting the publisher for the quickest ARC I’ve ever requested. Just look at the cover. Doesn’t it make you want to jump right in, blood and scary woman aside?

Problem is, I let it sit there for a while, let it grow and fester in my brain. Soon, it became a whisper in the back of my mind. Read me…

Read me…

But I couldn’t. I had to save it.

Suffice to say, I nearly cracked. BUT… it became my treat. What was the occasion, you say? Why, I finished the first draft of my book.

And then I proceeded to devour one of the best books of the year.

A few years have passed, and the Warden’s back. He’s called in to a murder turned suicide, left aghast at both of the corpses. However, he knows there’s a game afoot. A new drug is on the market, something linked to his past with Black House. People are distributing this narcotic without knowing its full effects. And Warden can’t let that slide. Others think like him, people he detests, fanatics and hicks. However, it’s when he learns there’s another key player that the pieces begin to fall into place.

Albertine is back in Low Town, and she’s waiting.

The woman was mentioned in passing in the first book, and is finally shown in the last. Think Sabetha in Scott Lynch’s third book, all the build-up we’ve had from her, the femme fatale character type, and the cause of the protagonist’s fall, then make her worse. Much worse.

While Sabetha is Locke’s rival, Albertine is the Warden’s enemy. There is no romantics. This is no game. He’s fighting for his life, not just a win.

Oh, and the Old Man wants her too, if that’s any consolation. Unfortunately, our cynical and sarcastic narrator can’t have that.

This book has the slowest build-up of the three, and for three hundred pages, I was a little hesitant. Polansky makes up for this big time by giving me what I’ve always been waiting for: A realization that the Warden truly is the King of Low Town. Nowhere else does this ring truest. We go from conversations with an old master pickpocket to negotiations between gangs to outright threats toward the highest in the land. We see how he became the crime lord. He walks the streets, his streets, with a head held high, even when the bodies begin to pile up in his neighborhood.

“’I hope for your sake that the people who make your decisions aren’t operating under that misimpression. Low Town is mine. Every broke-down whore shaking her ass on a midnight thoroughfare is keeping her eyes out for me, every lost youth leaps at the chance to do me a favor, every thug fingering his knife shivers when he hears my name, and makes sure to stay on the right side of it. The bricks in the street, the cracks in the wall, the smog and the smoke, the shit in the canal – I snap my fingers and an army rises up from the muck…There ain’t nothing here worth having – but by the Firstborn and every one of his siblings, there isn’t a man alive who’ll take it from me.’”

For the longest of time, the Warden has always seemed to be a single entity, a hard criminal functioning alone in his little territory. But for some strange reason, Polansky breathes depth and a final click here. It’s exactly what the plodding pace needed to give me a great time.

Making this book better is the prose. It’s no surprise that I love Polansky’s writing. I adore it. If I could have a shred of his talent, I would sacrifice chickens. She Who Waits has the most confident prose I’ve seen in a while, sharp, brutal, and amazing. There’s less introspection than the first two, but oh well. I can deal with it. The dark humor more than makes up for this.

However, the plot is a little less tighter than I enjoy. While not necessarily a bad thing, we do tend to hop from place to place early on. It works in the mystery department, but I’m not exactly sold on the endeavor. Two thirds of the way through, and I feel we’re stumbling. The Warden’s plan is coming together nicely, but the pieces aren’t connecting. It’s not enough. I argued with myself because of this. I lost faith in the writer.

Polansky blew me away because of my doubts.

If there is one certainty, it is that Polanksy can write an intelligent novel.

Never before have I upped the rating of a book by one point because of the final hundred pages. I’ve knocked it down before, sure, but never up. If the novel was great up until then, it became amazing afterward, and that’s no light statement like I usually throw around. This was hands down one of the best endings to a novel I have ever read. It makes the book.

My only complaint is that I wanted more. I wanted to see Adolphus and his good humor again. I wanted another conversation with Li Ching. More than anything, I wanted more flashbacks. They made the beginning great, the time spent smoking in the rain, even if they were few and far between.

But that’s details.

A bigger one might be a scene that I would contest could be a modern classic. The last talk with the Old Man was breathtaking, atmospheric, and, to quote a cliché, amazing. A favorite of mine, for sure.

And stronger than this is the character arc of one great kid, Wren. He started off as a sullen urchin in Low Town, grew into a kid with the Art in book 2. Here, he’s coming of age, becoming a man under a criminal, and I love it. The characters are the bread and butter of his story.

Even if the brooding sense of finality reached its end, I was still enamored after the last page had been turned. Polansky made me want to hunt him down and kill him. He made me want to force the man to continue typing away. I can’t wait for what’s next, unlike the title.

This is one of the best books released in 2013, and one of the best reads of the year. While it does have its faults, I can say that this author has finally become a favorite of mine, if that wasn’t evident beforehand.

Daniel Polansky solidified his standing in the genre as one not to look out for, but one to always be on the watch for his next move. There is no doubt in my mind that She Who Waits is Fantasy Noir at its finest.

“They’ll deceive you, those stutter steps into the abyss. You get to thinking the descent goes on indefinitely. Everything ends.”

*I was given this ARC for my honest review.*

Rating: 8.5/10

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