Low Town is one part Abercrombie’s Last Argument of Kings, one part Block’s 8 Million Ways to Die (review), seasoned with enough drug use to power A Scanner Darkly. It was unexpectedly engaging.
The Warden runs the dreamsnake and pixie’s breath drug trade in Low Town, the ghetto area of Rigus. Low Town was decimated by plague years ago; survivors have grown up, moved on, but still carry the horror of those days with them. The Warden is a street-smart survivor of those years. He went on to survive a brutal war conquering a neighboring city and a stint with the city’s law enforcement. He’s since lost his position as an agent, but his habit of sampling the product he sells helps him forget. When he discovers the mangled body of a dead Low Town child, he’s drawn into the investigation.
I’m not often a fan of the anti-hero narrator. Most authors are good at developing the ‘anti-‘ but seem unable to develop the subtlety that brings the ‘hero’ part to the formula. Polansky did an excellent job of balancing the line, showing us a functioning addict who is occasionally despicable, but occasionally capable of goodness. Like many noir mysteries, the Warden is a man who has fallen from grace, except he takes an angry kind of pride in his ability to survive the streets. Some might find the rest of the cast to be tend towards the stereotypical side of detective fiction. I’m not sure I’d entirely disagree, but I think what matters in a genre heavily influenced by tropes is the ability to elevate characterization above simple definitions. The Warden is flawed enough that I didn’t admire him and found some actions despicable, but yet I wanted to read more. His backstory was woven in well, giving insight to his character as well as the fantasy world. It’s interesting that the reason he gives for leaving the government’s service isn’t explored further, but perhaps that’s being saved for the sequels.
I did feel the world was a little medieval European generic, but honestly, many authors who set noir in fantasy worlds don’t focus on the setting as much as the mood and character. To me, this was one of the weaker points of Low Town. Polansky did a reasonable job of making the rough-and-tumble of Low Town clear, as well as particular locations needful to the story, but I didn’t have as much sense of the fantastical ingredients or even the political structure of the city, just the relationship of the law enforcement agencies to the criminals. But, in a way, it really is the untutored viewpoint of a person who has lived his life in a very narrow environment, only leaving it for war. He has a lot of class bitterness without great insight into the structure overall that might help the reader differentiate the world.
Overall, an interesting read. In some ways, I’m not sure I would have continued reading if it would have been set in the here and now–say in Detroit, with weed and crack replacing the dreamgrass and pixie’s breath, with payoffs to local cops and fearing investigation by the DEA. It’s very gritty noir, and yet I found it more palatable than most. It rather surprises me that Low Town hasn’t come across my radar more often, as the genre of grim fantasy is enjoying unprecedented popularity and this seems like a book that would appeal to many of my book-world friends. I’ll be looking to read the next book in the series.