Wednesday, 17 August 2011
‘Low Town’/’The Straight Razor Cure’ – Daniel Polansky (Doubleday/Hodder & Stoughton)
For the sake of this review I’ll be referring to the book as ‘Low Town’ purely because it’s a lot quicker to write, no offence meant UK edition ;o)
As a kid starting out reading fantasy, for the first time, I was all about castles on top of hills and deep forests that our heroes had to make their way through on some quest or other. These days though? It’s all about cityscapes for me and the darker the better as far as I’m concerned. A forest is one thing but it doesn’t really compare to sampling the local fare in the city market before diving off into a maze of alleyways to see what you’ll find there. This is where an author really has a chance to make a mark on his setting and give us something that may not be unique (there are loads of cities to be found in fantasy novels) but is undeniably his. The prospect of this is what gets me excited when I have the chance to visit a new city in a genre novel. Ambergris, New Crobuzon, Malaz City and Camorr; these are all cities where I’ve very much enjoyed spending time. Could the most disreputable districts of the great city of Rigus join that list? In a word, yes. Not only is ‘Low Town’ a cityscape worthy of your attention but there’s also a very good story lurking amongst its alleys and manors...
If you find yourself in Low Town then at least you know that there’s only a little further to sink, in the sea of narcotics that have flooded these mean streets. People go about whatever business they can here and only some of it is legal. The guard don’t pay too much attention though and that’s the way everyone likes it. Other, darker things can happen on these streets as well and if someone goes missing then that’s just the way it goes sometimes. When a child’s mutilated corpse is found though, that’s a whole different deal; especially when more small corpses follow.
Warden has escaped his past as a soldier, and agent of the crown, to set up shop as Low Town’s number one narcotics dealer. He’s a man that you don’t want to cross (not if you want to keep all your fingers) and someone who will happily wallow in the depravity and violence that he dishes out; someone for whom the notion of redemption is just a notion. It would take nothing less than him discovering a child’s battered corpse to set him on that path.
Warden is on that path now though and nothing is going to stop him getting to the truth. Nothing apart from some particularly vicious obstacles that suddenly appear in his way...
If you’re going to put me in the middle of a fictional city then you need to make me believe that I’m there. I’m not saying that I actually want to smell what’s in the gutters (because, who’d really want to do that?) but I want something pretty solid that tells me I’m somewhere specific instead of generic. Polansky more than delivers on this score with a dank and nasty cityscape with surly identity all of its own. Polansky’s prose not only leaves you in no doubt what kind of a place Low Town is but you also get a really clear picture of what’s needed to survive there as well. It takes someone like the Warden to make it big in Low Town but more about him in a moment.
Low Town is almost a character in its own right with the way its settings seep into your brain and have you walking the streets before you even know it. It’s certainly a hard place to leave. If you don’t end up reading ‘Low Town’ in one sitting then the setting is going to be at the back of your mind until you pick it up again.
Looming over all of this is the character of the Warden, quite possibly one of the nastiest bastards you’re likely to meet in Fantasy fiction. Is it possible to be a hero if you’re blatantly doing the right thing for your own selfish ends? That’s the question that Polansky asks of the Warden and the answer has to be yes (although I can’t say too much here for fear of spoilers). The ensuing read though is never anything less than uncomfortable as the Warden proves himself to be more than able to dish out the violence with a casual ferocity that was always shocking yet strangely compelling. The Warden has a sharp mind as well though and this comes in just as handy as the plot progresses.
What really makes the Warden’s character work is the immense amount of time that Polansky puts into fleshing out his background. There are no punches pulled in showing just what led the Warden to his current state (minus a few bits that I’m sure we’ll see more of in future books) and while you’re never going to feel sorry for the Warden, you’ll understand just why he is the way he is. The Warden is a character that makes for uncomfortable reading at times so all credit to Polansky for making him a character that you want to spend time with.
Part of this, of course, is down to the plot that Polansky presents us with. A murder mystery is nothing new but Polansky lends a sense of real emotion to the proceedings that moves things forward nicely and a lovely hint of reluctance from the Warden himself. He doesn’t want to get involved but it is happening on his turf...
The ensuing plot is full of questions that have a happy knack of leading the reader down the wrong path in time for nasty surprises later on and enough fights and chases (depicted in all their brutal glory with a scary hint of the supernatural) to keep people like me very happy indeed. The only downside was that I saw the ending coming but the way in which Polansky gets us there balances things out and leaves no cause for complaint at all.
I’ve still got a hell of a lot of books to get through this year but I think I’ve found my ‘Debut for 2011’ already. ‘Low Town’ is brash, brutal and downright brilliant. If you want to a fantasy novel that shows you what the criminal underclass are really like, this is the book you should be reading.
Nine and Three Quarters out of Ten