Low Town (The Straight Razor Cure) by Daniel Polansky
FORMAT/INFO: Low Town is 352 pages long divided over 49 numbered chapters. Narration is in the first person, exclusively via a thirty-five year old crime lord/drug dealer/junkie named the Warden. Low Town is self-contained, but is the first volume in a series. August 16, 2011 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Low Town via Doubleday. The UK edition will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on August 18, 2011 under the title The Straight Razor Cure.
ANALYSIS: Daniel Polansky’s Low Town is categorized as ‘noir fantasy’. What is noir fantasy? In my mind, it’s when Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett meet the fantastic — magic, the supernatural, and so forth. Combining noir with fantasy is hardly a new concept. China Miéville‘s The City & The City, Jeff VanderMeer‘s Finch, Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. series, Hellblazer, The Vampire Files by P.N. Elrod, Simon R. Green’s Nightside, Mike Carey’s Felix Castor novels, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Alex Bledsoe’s Eddie LaCrosse series, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim novels… these are just a few of the many examples to be found. As far as noir fantasy goes, Low Town doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but Daniel Polansky’s debut is still one of the subgenre’s better efforts.
What impressed me the most about Low Town was the setting. Of the noir fantasies that I’ve read, the majority of them — urban fantasy novels in particular — take place in an alternate version of our world where magic and the paranormal are real. Not Low Town. Low Town is set in a fully realized secondary world complete with its own races and countries (Dren, Islanders, Kirens, Rouender, Asher, Tarasaihgn, Vaalan, Miradin, Nestria), currency (ochres, argents), gods and religion (Church of Prachetas, the Lost One, the Firstborn, Oathkeeper, the Daevas, Śakra), narcotics (pixie’s breath, dreamvine, wyrm, Daeva’s honey, ouroboros root), history, et cetera. The focus of this world is the city of Rigus with its different neighborhoods and districts including Kirentown, Kor’s Heights, and of course, Low Town itself.
Even though Daniel Polansky’s novel takes place in a fantasy world, it’s a familiar backdrop. That’s because the author draws inspiration from real people, cities and history. As a result, Rigus feels like a cross between 19th century London and some major American city (Los Angeles, New York City) from the 1930s/40s, while the Red Fever and the war with the Dren brought to mind the Great Plague and World War I. Also recognizable are the book’s depictions of social stratification, racism, crime, and police corruption & bureaucracy. In some instances, the author does little more than change a name — Kirens are Asians, Islanders are black people, dreamvine is marijuana — but even this small of an effort makes a difference. Personally, I felt the secondary world injected flavor into the novel’s noir elements, while the familiarity of the setting made it easier to become immersed in the world of Low Town.
Magic, meanwhile, exists in the form of the Art, sorcerers (Crane the First Sorcerer of the Realm; Celia, Sorcerer First Rank; Brightfellow), scryers, the Crown’s Eye, wards to protect the city from the plague, and a gargoyle that guards the entrance to the Aerie. To be honest, between Crane, the Bureau of Magical Affairs and the Academy for the Furtherance of the Magical Arts, magic in Low Town reminded me a little bit of Harry Potter, which seemed at odds with the rest of the novel. To make matters worse, there’s not even that much magic in the book to begin with, and of the little magic that does show up, it’s either not explained or developed very well by the author, or it’s told about (the wards, using the Crown’s Eye) rather than shown.
Besides the setting, I also loved the tone of the book. A lot of authors have tried to emulate Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but not everyone can pull it off. Daniel Polansky does so with ease, with the characters, story and milieu of Low Town all delightfully drenched in hard-boiled noir. In other words, Low Town is dark, gritty and morally ambivalent. Of course, the highlight is easily Warden with his grim history — survivor of the Fever, the streets and war; gave up a successful career in law enforcement to live a life of crime — and a riveting first-person narrative that reflects the protagonist’s sarcastic sense of humor, moral ambivalence, and cynical attitudes:
- Everything’s always clearer in hindsight. If I had the day to do over again, I would try to avoid getting my ass kicked.
- People are fools. You don’t need a prophet to tell the future. Look at yesterday, then look at today. Tomorrow is likely to be the same, and the day after.
- 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.
- I learned something back then, something about the nature of crime, and of the things people do that are meant to remain hidden. Solving a mystery isn’t about finding clues or getting lucky with a suspect — it’s about deciding what to look for, framing the narrative in your mind. If you can puzzle out the questions, the answers will come.
The supporting cast includes some interesting morally gray characters including the bartender Adolphus, Wren the street urchin, Crane the First Sorcerer of the Realm, Celia, Warden’s ex-partner Crispin, the Smiling Blade, Crowley, the Old Man, Yancey the Rhymer, the Kiren crime lord Ling Chi, Mairi the Dark-Eyed, the scryer Marieke and Dr. Kendrick. Sadly, none of these characters are very well developed. Since Low Town is written in the first person, this is not exactly a major surprise. Nevertheless, I wish the author had done more to flesh out Warden’s relationship and history with Crane, Celia and Crispin, especially considering their importance to the novel.
Plot-wise, Low Town features a murder mystery that forces Warden’s current life as a crime lord, drug dealer and junkie to collide with his former life as an agent and Special Ops of the Crown. Surprisingly, the murder mystery is not the novel’s main attraction. Instead, Warden’s history is the more compelling story line, which is revealed through various flashbacks — life on the streets after his parents died of the plague and his sister was killed; enlisting in the war at nineteen years old; participating in the secret mission that ended the war with the Dren Commonwealth — although the author leaves a few matters unanswered, like why Warden left the Crown’s service in the first place or how he took over Low Town. The problems with Low Town’s central mystery — Who is kidnapping and murdering Low Town children, and why? — are obvious red herrings, spoiler-ish foreshadowing, and a surprise twist that is very easy to figure out. The ending is also somewhat disappointing due to its truncated resolution and unsettled issues.
CONCLUSION: Daniel Polansky’s Low Town is far from perfect. As noir fantasy, the book is fairly conventional, formulaic even. As a debut, Low Town is rough around the edges — supporting characters lack depth, magic is unoriginal and underdeveloped, and the story’s ending and central mystery fail to deliver. Yet, despite all of that, I loved Low Town. I loved the setting. I loved the characters. I loved the noir. And when the sequel is ready, I will love coming back to Low Town and continuing Warden’s tale…
In a grimy dump of a room above a bar lives the Warden, a man who has led many lives but now finds himself as low as ever. A former soldier and police officer, he is now addicted to the drugs he sells for a living in the territory he carved out for himself in Low Town, the seediest district in the city of Rigus. He’s become a cynical man, leading a dark and violent life, but when he finds the abused corpse of a young girl who went missing a few days earlier, he can’t help getting pulled into the investigation, which will inevitably bring him into contact with parts of his past he’d rather stay clear of. So begins Low Town, the promising debut fantasy novel by Daniel Polansky…
If it wasn’t clear from that opening paragraph, Low Town is fantasy noir. It’s a dark novel about cynical people in a grimy part of town. Its main characters are street hustlers, petty criminals, and corrupt cops. It’s set in a part of the city where actual law enforcement officers tread lightly and a rough sort of justice is usually enforced by whichever crime lord runs that particular area. It starts off with Warden taking a hit of pixie’s breath — one of the drugs he both sells and frequently uses — to help him face the day, and then tossing the contents of his bed pan out of the window into the alley below before trudging down to the bar below for his breakfast. No sparkly elves making merry in this fantasy, folks.
Warden is a fascinating main character. When we meet him at the start of the novel, he has become an anti-hero who has settled down at the low point of his adult life, but throughout Low Town you’ll get bits and pieces of information that allow you puzzle together his back story, showing exactly how far he’s fallen. The story is told from his first person perspective, so you’ll get a very close look at the workings of his mind. He may seem cynical and selfish, but at several instances you’ll also see a softer side of his personality, especially when it comes to children. Still, when faced with misfortune, he usually chooses between getting drunk, getting high, beating someone up, or all of the above.
Early on, I expected this to be a novel with a strong protagonist and a bunch of flat side characters, but instead I found that many of the bit players eventually take on enough life to become interesting in their own right. Adolphus, who runs the Staggering Earl bar and soldiered with Warden in the past, shows a gruff but good-natured demeanor that eventually reveals a softer side. (For some reason, he reminded me of Dan Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski.) Wren is a razor-sharp street urchin who becomes Warden’s protégé. The Crane is the First Sorcerer of the Realm, responsible for saving the city in the past but now fading into old age, and Celia is his apprentice. Crispin is Warden’s former partner in the city’s police force (and at one point memorably tells Warden “You’ve become everything you ever hated.”) Several of these characters start out being one-dimensional but eventually many of them take on enough detail and personality to become fascinating in their own right. Despite initial appearances, Low Town isn’t a one-man show, which is promising for future novels in this series.
Aside from the characters, the other main attraction of this novel is its setting. There’s an entire fantasy world here, even though the novel is set entirely in one small part of it and we only see bits and pieces of the rest of the world. Daniel Polansky makes several references to other cities and countries, various religions, past wars, and plagues that ravaged the city. The actual rulers never take the stage in this novel, but we do see examples of decadent nobility, a corrupt police force, and a terrifying intelligence bureau. There are also several distinct human races, and although it’s easy to draw parallels with races from our own world, they still add realism to the overall picture. The author packs a lot of world-building detail into this relatively short novel, which again makes me curious to see future novels set in Low Town or the wider world.
Daniel Polansky paints the darkness, grime and depravity of Low Town with broad, bold strokes. Occasionally the noir is laid on a bit too thickly, but most of the time Polansky’s prose displays a skill and grace that’s unexpected for a debut novel. Being stuck inside the mind of a grim, cynical character can be hard to bear for an entire novel, but Warden shows enough wit and irreverence (“Up close she looked like someone better seen from farther away.”) to turn Low Town into an entertaining and frequently funny read, even if the subject matter is on the dark side.
Low Town was published in the UK as The Straight Razor Cure, and as evocative as that UK title is, this is one of the few novels where I prefer the US title. It just fits the novel better. I also think the US cover is considerably more appropriate than the UK one. We didn’t really need another mysterious hooded figure, especially one with its hand on fire. The brick-wall-and-graffiti cover of the US edition is perfect for this novel.
Low Town is a strong, confident debut that should go down well with readers who enjoy their fantasy on the noir side. It’s a novel you can enjoy for its atmosphere as well as its story, full as it is of well-drawn scenes from the city’s underbelly. It’s also a tightly written book, which is something many people will appreciate in an age of novels with dramatis personae lists that take up several pages. Low Town delivers a fast, entertaining story in fewer pages than it takes some major epics to get out of the realm of basic exposition. I had a blast with Low Town, and I’m definitely keeping an eye out for whatever Daniel Polansky comes up with next.
I agree with Robert and Stefan. The audio edition of Low Town, read by Rob Shapiro, is fabulous. I’m looking forward to reading its sequel, Tomorrow, the Killing.
Low Town — (2011-2014) Low Town was also published in the UK as The Straight Razor Cure. Publisher: Here, the criminal is king. The streets are filled with the screeching of fish hags, the cries of swindled merchants, the inviting murmurs of working girls. Here, people can disappear, and the lacklustre efforts of the guard ensure they are never found. Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer; now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and a way of inviting danger. You’d struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his. But then a missing child, murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley. And then another. With a mind as sharp as a blade and an old but powerful friend in the city, he’s the only man with a hope of finding the killer. If the killer doesn’t find him first.
Sounds like something I’d like!
New authors are always fun.
I hope you get a chance to read the book Marion!
I can’t quite explain it Tobias, but I love reading debuts and discovering new authors. I think it’s the sense of not knowing what to expect…