Author: Daniel Polansky
To write a novel that blends hard-boiled detective fiction with dark fantasy, you need drug dealers, hustlers, brothels, dirty politics, corrupt cops, and sorcery. Polansky provides this and more in his debut novel that crosses genres with grit and edginess.
The unlikely hero of Low Town is a man who is only known by the title, Warden. He grew up as a street urchin, became a war hero (by surviving), and rose to prominence as an intelligence agent before his proclivity toward drugs ripped him of his status. With an iron hand and a taste for violence, the Warden has made a niche for himself in the dark community of Low Town. When he encounters the dead body of a young girl, he embarks on a mission to find the killer.
The Warden’s former colleagues of the secret police are more than willing to let him solve the murder, especially if it means his death in the process. With the assistance of a young orphan named Wren, the Warden travels through the darkest alleys of Low Town, using physical coercion as his modus operandi for obtaining information. But will he track down the killer before his time is up?
Starting with the good parts of the novel, Polansky writes well. The dialog is occasionally a bit stilted, but is believable. Likewise, the setting of Low Town is intruiging and the reader visits dark alleys, rooftops, seedy bars, and high towers. The setting is pre-industrial, but urban, where weapons are steel blades and crossbows instead of guns, requiring the Warden to demonstrate his survival skills in close combat. I also enjoyed the blending of a detective novel with elements of sword and sorcery, or as other reviews have dubbed fantasy noir.
My biggest struggle with the novel dealt with plot, which is a critical element of a mystery novel. The protagonist, who oddly is only referred to as the Warden, seems unlikely to take the lead investigating the series of murders. He has a history of being self-serving with drugs and violence that to embark on this quest seems too good for his character (what benefit does he gain for the risk?). His young assistant, Wren, also seems without motivation to come to his aide. He is adept at thievery (almost to the point that he does it for fun) and has little to gain by working for the Warden. Even after being hired, he sleeps on the streets, not wanting to be indebted to his employer. There are other characters as well and the Warden rushes off in each chapter to meet a new one without making progress in solving who the killer is. While some of these characters are interesting, in the end, we are just along for the ride. One character’s final words reveal to the Warden that he is a better fighter than he is a detective. That is true and the inept detective skills of the Warden leave for an ending that comes out of nowhere.
If you are looking for a gritty and dark fantasy with good action, Low Town is a good read. The world-building is well crafted and the prose flows nicely. The fantastical elements are slight, but in that respect, it is consistent with what the jacket claims was written “in the tradition of George R. R. Martin.” Overall, it was worth the read and I expect to see more novels by Polansky in the future.