Friday, July 29, 2011

Low Town Review

Daniel Polansky's debut novel Low Town tells the story of the Warden, a former officer of the law turned drug dealer, as he struggles to chase down a child murderer: "The Warden will follow a trail of violence and rumor from the broken-down streets to the gated communities of the rich and powerful [...] but the truth is far darker than he imagines." That's from the back cover which also goes on to say that Polansky is a "fresh voice in the tradition of George R.R. Martin." I can't say I agree with that. For all intents and purposes, Low Town is a novel that goes through the motions, checks the right boxes, but ultimately fails to make a huge impact.

Some reviews and interviews describe Low Town as a mixture of fantasy and noir. Others describe it as "Tarantino meets Lord of the Rings." These are disingenuous statements that make Low Town out to be something it's not. If you hear Tolkein, you tend to think of magic, elves, epic adventure, etc. Low Town has some magic, but that's about it. To me, the book definitely leaned more towards the noir side of things, and that wasn't necessarily a good thing. And it definitely wasn't George R.R. Martin-esque at all. I'll explain more later.

As far as the plot and characters go, it checks all the right boxes for a noirish urban fantasy-type novel. You have the Warden who used to be an agent of the secret police/intelligence service before some event five years before the start of the novel got him kicked out of the service. Disgruntled hero with a fall from grace? Check. The back cover and press surrounding this book go on and on about how the Warden is truly an anti-hero because he's such a bad man. He even sells drugs and dips into his own stash.

He's really not that bad at all. The Warden's more grumpy than anything. You never really see him sell any drugs to kids or "innocent" people, just the wealthy with a taste for debauchery. Plus when the children in Low Town start turning up dead, he goes out of his way to start investigating. That actually sounds pretty noble to me.

The plot moves rather quickly with several side characters getting thrown in, but none of them are truly fleshed out. I found it really hard to care for any of the side characters. It felt like some of them--especially those working for the law and the Throne--were introduced so we'd be familiar with them in future installments.

The plot also takes some twists and turns, but wraps itself up extremely quickly. For all the buildup, I guess I expected something a little more from the finale. The very, very climax was a little bit of a cop-out. Some people won't see the twist coming, but I started the book three days ago and made my prediction yesterday only to have it be proven correct today.

Now I really want to dive into the nitty gritty of Low Town. The book sells itself as fantasy--gritty, dirty, drug-dealing fantasy with sorcery. Sadly, many of the fantasy elements are only perfunctory. I had parts marked in my book--well over twenty of them--where the dialogue, the narrative, and the word choice all sound like they belong in a straight up crime thriller novel. Plus the worldbuilding came across as a little thin, so it was very difficult to get a good grasp of how this fantasy society is set up. Places and people were named, but very little detail was given about them. I didn't even figure out the main city was called Rigus until I read the book jacket again. A map of some kind would've been extremely valuable.

There were parts where the Warden was talking about his time serving in the military, and they sounded like they belonged in the World War I era. It just seems a little incongruous when there are mentions of artillery shells exploding and trench warfare in a fantasy book. I'm not saying they can't work together, but when I had no idea what technological level the book's society was at, they felt out of the blue. One minute the Warden's talking about artillery shells, and the next he's talking about strapping on a short sword and talking about magic talismans.

Again I'm not saying that you can't mix modern word choice, diction, etc. in a fantasy novel, but it just didn't mix well here in this instance. With a clearer picture of the setting, it would've been far easier to swallow the main character talking about Special Ops branches of the military and summoning rituals at the same time.

At the end of it, Low Town failed to really leave an impression on me. The writing is fairly solid with a couple of instances of over-use of the thesaurus, but overall Low Town isn't a poor book. It fails to rise above other books of its kind. It came to me perfectly the other night as I was reading: the Warden felt a lot like Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files but with no magical abilities and a little less savory profession. This is a debut novel so one should expect that Polansky will continue to flesh out the Warden's world if he turns Low Town into a series.

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