I’ve actually put off reviewing Daniel Polansky’s Low Town. Mainly so that my warm fuzzy feelings would fade some and I wouldn’t right some kind of crazy super glowing review. First off I should start by saying the UK title, The Straight Razor Cure, is way cooler than the US title. Low Town is a boring and nondescript title while The Straight Razor Cure is far more evocative of the tone Polansky is going for in the novel. You see Low Town is fantasy noir and in theme, tone, and plot is more reminiscent of a crime novel with a touch of magic. What sounds more noir to you: Low Town? Or The Straight Razor Cure?
The city of Rigus, jewel of the Thirteen Lands, is not the setting of this novel. Crouched at the feet of Rigus is the place known only as Low Town and there a man known only as The Warden makes his living selling drugs. The Warden wasn’t always a drug dealer. Once The Warden was a soldier, then he was an intelligence agent working for the shadowy Black House. Now though he walks a different path, at least right up until children start getting murdered on his turf. Dredging up unwelcome memories and unwelcome attention from his former masters the trail of bodies leads The Warden into dangerous, though familiar territories.
The first thing you might note is that the plot I sketch above could be from just about any crime novel. Rigus could be Manhattan, and Low Town could be Queens (or whatever the London equivalent of that would be) and with very little tweaking you could have very solid straight up crime novel. The Thirteen Lands are recovering from a recent war whose flashback sequence reminded me of World War I. The notion of The Thirteen Lands as a sort of magically influenced Europe and the idea that this is a society recovering from a devastating loss of life really helped me get into the narrative. The war is even referred to as The Great War.
The Warden is a fascinating character. Addicted to drugs and with a penchant for violence he isn’t the most stalwart of citizens. Yet he still has a sense of honor and obligation. He has problems with authority figures yet seems to manage well stepping into the role of one himself. Loyal to his friends and willing to do the right thing, even at great emotional or physical pain to himself, The Warden feels completely human in his portrayal. He is far from perfect and Polansky some how makes a character whose job really ought to make readers hate or detest him and turn him into someone believable and sympathetic. The story is told primarily from The Warden’s point of view which gives us a limited ability to get in the head of the rest of the novel characters. However, Polansky excels at creating interesting supporting cast members from an embittered and overweight magician, to the doddering and sweet Blue Crane, to the delightfully brusk diviner that works at morgue, to the warmhearted yet physically imposing Adolphus Low Town is full to the brim with unique and interesting characters just begging for further exploration.
I don’t want to get into too many details regarding the plot. It would be far too easy to inadvertently spoil things. It is suffice to say that Low Town is full to the brim with everything you could every want out of a noir-tinged fantasy novel. Corrupt and venal nobles, deadly magic, sinister criminals, physical violence and plenty of twists and turns make for an exciting read that is difficult to put down. I should point out that there was a point where I spotted the villain a bit too early, maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m just a bit too much of a cynic but there was a single moment that seemed so obvious to me that The Warden was oblivious to it seemed highly dubious. The moment is brief and I was able to move past it but it did slightly mar what would otherwise be a near perfect read.
Fans of fantasy and crime fiction will find a lot to like in Low Town. Polansky has created a familiar landscape to ease readers into his world of magic and mayhem. It is a landscape based off an era of history that doesn’t see too much focus these days (and one that American readers a more likely to be unfamiliar with). The Warden is a fascinating entry into both the fantasy and noir/hard-boiled lexicon standing shoulder to shoulder with Sam Spade and, well The Warden isn’t like any fantasy heroes I can name (maybe a mashup of Farfhrd and The Gray Mouser?). This is the most excited I’ve felt about a debut since 2010’s Bitter Seeds. While it is a shame that the US watered down the title that shouldn’t stop anyone from grabbing a copy of Low Town as soon as possible.