Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Low Town (The Straight Razor Cure) by Daniel Polansky

Posted by Simcha 5:17 AM, under | 5 comments

Drug dealers, hustlers, brothels, dirty politics, corrupt cops . . . and sorcery. Welcome to Low Town.

In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its cham­pion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent. Forgotten war hero. Independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.

The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his dis­covery of a murdered child down a dead-end street . . . set­ting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investi­gated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psy­chotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted.

Low Town is narrated by Warden, a drug dealer and addict who had grown up an orphan on the dangerous streets of Low Town and rose to become a valuable agent of the government's Secret Service department. But several years ago something happened that landed Warden back in Low Town on the other side of the law, now running the local drug trade with an iron fist. Somehow the brutal life that the Warden has lived has not yet hardened him completely and when a young girl is found savagely murdered he finds himself driven to hunt down the murderer. But once Warden identifies the girl's murderer he realizes the situation is a lot worse than he could have imagined and that a horror from his past may be about to descend on Low Town, unless he can stop it. Warden's former colleagues from the police force are also eager to bring a stop to the murders and they intend to use Warden to so do, and if he doesn't survive, all the better.

I'm not big on gritty stories detailing bloody acts of violence and scenes of misery and abuse so I was a bit apprehensive as to what I would find in the pages of this book, based on its description. But as soon as I started reading Low Town I forgot about my concerns because the casual writing style easily drew me into the story and kept my attention focused on the drama of the unfolding events.

Despite the Warden's reputation on the street and his unsavory occupation as a drug lord he's not an unsympathetic character. He's not as hardened as one would expect from someone in his position and his obvious care for his friends and his lack of casual violence or cruelty make him someone that readers can still connect with. The wry humor in which he expresses himself also helps his appeal. I actually found it a bit irritating at how willing Warden was to repeatedly take responsibility for reprehensible events that were not his fault but still laid at his feet. So I might actually say that I found him to be perhaps just a little too good to be believable, though I suppose if this wasn't the case it would have been a lot harder for readers to care about him.

From the moment that Warden finds the body of the murdered little girl he is on a mission to find out the truth about what happened to her. Egged on by his friends, and threated by his superiors, Warden turns to his contacts for assistance and follows clues around the city until he determines who he believes the murderer to be. From that point on Warden is focused on finding the necessary proof to convict the suspected murderer of his crimes.

Low Town is probably best described as a detective noir story with a few fantasy elements mixed in, but not really enough to properly categorize it as a fantasy novel. I wouldn't call it a mystery either because we aren't really given any clues to help us determine the culprit but instead we tag along with Warden as he rushes from one contact to another without seeming to make any progress. I would have been completely surprised by the ending if Polansky hadn't shown his hand (a bit clumsily) a few chapters from the end, pretty much pointing out the culprit to us.

I was relieved to find that Low Town didn't include of scenes of brutal violence and torture a'la a Joe Abercrombie novel, though the danger and menace of the setting was a constant presence in the background.

For me what really set this book apart from other detective noir, fantasy stories was the writing. In addition to the casual narration style that made it so easy to slip into the story, I really just enjoyed the writing itself. I frequently reread certain sentences and passages just because I liked the way they were phrased, and not necessarily for any particular idea being expressed.

The only complaint I have about the book is that I would have liked to have gotten to know some of the secondary characters a bit better. These include Wren, a young street urchin that Warden takes under his wing, the Crane, an elderly wizard who befriended Warden in his youth, and Celia, a woman who Warden had saved from a childhood on the streets. Though the characters I would have really liked to have gotten to know better were Adolphus and his wife Adeline, who run the pub in which Warden lived. While the two do show up frequently in the story, usually serving Warden breakfast ( Adolphus) or chastising him for something ( Adeline) we only get a superficial look at them and their relationship with Warden, mostly through these interaction. Though there was one memorable scene between Warden and Adolphus that really made me wish Polansky had focused more on the relationship between the two, because it could have been a very powerful element in the story.

    I was so fixed on my purpose that I nearly rebounded off Adolphus, who stood at the foot of the steps, rendered nearly invisible by the low light and his own uncanny stillness. Beneath his heavy overcoat a ragged suit of studded leather stretched taut against his chest, and he'd dug up his old kettle helmet, the steel dented by five years of close calls. Apart from his dress he was also festooned with weapons, two short blades hanging at his side and a battle-ax strapped to his back.
    'What the hell are you wearing?' I asked, astounded. 
    The savagery in his eyes left me with no doubt that my comrade was quite serious in his choice of attire. 'You didn't think you were going alone? This isn't our first time over the top. I've got my eyed on your back, as always.' 
    Was he drunk? I sniffed at his breath- apparently not. 'I don't have time for this. Watch Adeline, I'll be back in a few hours.' 
    'Wren's my son,' he said, without affectation of aggrandizement. 'I'll not sit by the fire while his life is in danger.' 
    The Oathkeeper spare us from such pointless nobility. 'Your offer is appreciated, but unnecessary.' 
    I tried to squeeze by, but he put one hand against my collar and held me firm against he banister. 'It wasn't an offer.' 
    The streaks of gray outnumbered the black in his once charcoal hair. His pockmarked face was heavy. Was I that old? Did I look that foolish, my collar pulled up like a hoodlum, steel bulging from my pockets, a middle-aged man playing at adventures of youth?
    ...I brushed off Adolphus's hand and took a step back up the stairs, giving myself enough room to maneuver. 'You're fat- you were always big, but you're fat now. You're slow and you can't sneak, and you don't have it in you to kill a man anymore, not the way I'm going to do it. I'm not sure that you ever did. I've no time to flatter your vanity- every second you waste the boy gets closer to death. Get..out of my way.' 
    For a moment I thought I had overplayed my hand and he would knock my head off my shoulders. But then he turned his face to the ground and all the energy seemed to slump out of him, like a hole at the bottom of a jug. He turned away from the staircase, his collection of cutlery jangling. 
    'Look after Adeline,' I said. 'I'll be back in an hour or two.' 
    That was far from certain, but there was no point in saying so. 
    I slipped out into the night.

Low Town is a very impressive debut novel that I would highly recommend. I can't wait to find out what Daniel Polansky has in store for us next.


I am no a fan of gritty either, but it does sound like a good debut. Kudos to him

I've been in a noir mood lately, so maybe reading a fantasy noir would be fun.

Oh I am like you. I don't care for the graphic violence. So glad it doesn't have it. I'm curious about the writing. If it drew you in, it might draw me in.

Blodeuedd: I was very impressed. You should give this book a try.

Ryan: You should. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on it if you do read it.

Melissa: I was a bit nervous at certain points because the story does come close (there is almost a torture scene) but to my relief he avoids anything really graphic.

Thanks for the post. I had been looking for something
related and found your web site in the process.. I will definitely be back for more.

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