Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Low Town

I just finished the novel Low Town by Daniel Polansky, a first time published novelist writing in that kind of dark fantasy noir mindset that seems to be sweeping the genre lately.  Curiously, his novel has also been published in the UK with a completely different title, The Straight Razor Cure although it still seems to be subtitlted Low Town, as if it were a series name or something.  And in German, it was published as Der Herr der Unterstadt--"The Lord of the Low Town" although I don't know of the phrase Unterstadt has any colloquial meanings like underworld or anything like that.  My German's way too weak for that.  I personally like the British title best, and it echoes a line of dialogue from near the end of the book.  The British book cover, on the other hand, has a generic looking wizard, hooded and cowled in a red robe with his face nearly completely concealed and his hand on fire.  I have no idea who he's supposed to represent, as no character in the book looks like that.  Then again, the art-less American cover isn't exactly setting my imagination on fire either.

Don't know much about Polansky, as this is his first published book, and his biographical info is pretty sparse, indicating merely that he's from Baltimore, this is his first novel, and he has a BA in philosophy, of all things.  The Wikipedia article on Low Town suggests that it is partly autobiographical, but that's probably patently absurd, as you'll probably see just from my quick summary below.  I also presume that Daniel Polansky is not related to Roman Polanski, but I caught myself almost typing the latter several times while composing this post.

Polansky and his critics have made a big deal out of his melding of fantasy and hardboiled crime novels--too much of a big deal, in my opinion.  There's been a strong trend that way for a long time, although exaclty how much and what kind of melding is, of course, variable by work.  I've blogged here already about stuff written by guys like Glen Cook, Simon R. Green, Alex Bledsoe, and even David Gross that happily takes a fair amount of noir or mystery novel influence and applies it to the fantasy genre.  Some of those guys have done what they were doing years ago.  But just because the innovativeness and novelty of Polansky's work is, perhaps, overstated in the buzz around his work doesn't mean that the book itself suffers, by any means.  Let's take a look at what we've got:

1) The voice.  Low Town was deliberately written to echo the voice made famous by writers like Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler.  First person, cynical, wise-cracking, and depressing, the voice is very much a noir voice.  Classically so, even.  As Polansky himself intimated, in the quick youtube snippet below, fantasy often has a tendency of being over-written, bloated and paced so that it can outrun your average glacier.  Barely.  Matching that with the hard-hitting pacing and terse, cynical voice of the noir novel is a good match in many ways.  Not that Polansky is the first (or only) fantasy writer to go that route, but he's one of the best at getting the voice to hit the right notes.  In fact, it's one of the most intriguing narrative voices I've read in some time.

2) Do any of you (two or three readers that may stumble across this) remember Bat Durston?  He used to appear as a semi-satirical character who could slip from one genre to the next without any substantive change; usually from a western to a space opera, with only cosmetic changes.  The American southwest became the Martian landscape, his horse became a speeder of some kind, the Apaches became Martians, the cattle rustlers became... I dunno, some other kind of bandit.  The point was, some stories can easily slip from genre to genre because they don't actually incorporate the narrative tropes and conventions of the genre that they appear in.  Low Town fits this description in many ways.  In many ways, it's an iconic noir novel.  There's little about it that makes it have to take place in a fantasy setting, and in fact, there's little about the fantasy setting that is unique or unusual, or even fantastic.  Maybe that's deliberate, because that would clash somewhat with the noir sensibilities, but it's true.  Heck, even the sorcery becomes more of a macguffin than an integral plot point.  Magic becomes the murder weapon, but it could easily have been something else.  The Warden, the protagonist of Low Town, is a Bat Durston.  He doesn't come from a Western, but the story, the characters, the voice, the plot--everything could have been a "regular" noir novel, and the fantasy is just a cosmetic overlay that gives Low Town a bit of a twist, and the opportunity to be read by a new audience who otherwise may not have discovered it.

Again; I'm not voicing that as a complaint.  In fact, I think that's a perfectly reasonable tack to take.  But it is what it is.  Low Town isn't really treading in some new, gee-whiz, innovative and uncharted territory.  It's an iconic, almost by-the-numbers, if I can say it, hardboiled detective novel that just happens to have some fantasy overlay, including a secondary world setting and a magical macguffin.

3) Being written as it is in a first person limited point of view, the protagonist slash narrator has to be a great character, and The Warden fits the bill.  He's also an iconic noir type character--a former hero of sorts; a war veteran, a spy slash detective career after that, a fall from grace and dishonorable discharge from service, and he's now a tough guy around town peddling drugs and running a reasonable successful criminal business.  Against his better judgement, he gets involved in an investigation of some grisly murders.  His past comes back to haunt him.  He gets stuck between the secret police and gang bosses and  unscrupulous noble murderers and more, and has to navigate an increasingly difficult, intrigue-laden plot to confront what ends up being  a dark secret with ties to his own past.  All fairly textbook noir tropes, frankly, with the exception of the vaguely Lovecraftian horrors from the spaces between the worlds that are being summoned to murder people.  But very well executed.  The main mystery wasn't quite as surprising as all that.  I've never been great at sussing out the riddle of who's guilty in mysteries ahead of time, really, but this time, Polansky really telegraphed somewhat transparently that there was something hinky going on with the villain, so when revealed, it's not a big shocker, it's more like, "y'know, I was wondering what was going on there.  That makes sense."  Good point or bad point?  I dunno.  I enjoy it.  Then again, I don't read a lot of pure mystery, because I don't necessarily enjoy the game between author and readers that the genre presupposes.  I'm OK with an author telling me what happens without me being expected to try and figure it out myself.

4) The Warden isn't the only great character, though, although he naturally gets top billing.  Several other characters, including the nobleman, his sorcerous henchman, the Warden's husband and wife landlord slash old war time friend, the bitter ex-partner from the force, the young kid who starts tagging along behind them, the benevolent father figure, even Yancey the medieval rap artist are all reasonably well developed and interesting characters who have  a part to play.  And the cryptic dialogue between the Warden and the leader of the Triad-like syndicate Ling Qi is just outright fun and hilarious while managing to also be surprisingly sinister to read.

5) Like dark fantasy everywhere, the ending is somewhat Pyrrhic and depressing; hard choices are made, and the protagonist (I can't really call him a hero in any sense of the word) is left with little more than a handful of ashes for his trouble.  Will there be a sequel?  I'm sure that depends on the sales of this book, which has only been out a little over a month now.  I strongly recommend it.  It was a great read.  Polansky has a great, polished voice, and the characters deserve more screen-time.  I've love to see the world of Low Town get a bit more development.  And as I've long been lauding the practice of merging some of the good features of other genres with fantasy, of course I'm a cheerleader for a book that does it and manages to be supremely well executed.

Next up, another book with a similar vibe--a fantasy crime type premise--by another first time author, Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick.  I'll be sure and review that one too.  It's got at least one advantage over Polansky's book--not counting the cover art, which I greatly prefer--it's been pimped a fair amount by Brent Weeks, who's a bit of a superstar in the fantasy genre of sorts right now, so Hulick's book comes with high expectations and lots of pre-release buzz.  Of course, I didn't exactly get it on release day or anything either; there's probably many reviews out by now, many of them several months old (I think the book was released in April?  Maybe May) but by my standards, it's still pretty new.

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