Fantasy Review: ‘Low Town’ by Daniel Polansky

So I have an honest question. How much does a first person narrative absolve semi-pragmatic aspects of an otherwise good to very good story? If a third person account says someone speaking a foreign language is jabbering it is quite often called out; but if a criminal overlord with some mild racist tendencies brings it up it is not necessarily the lore of the land but rather one man’s train of thought. I really don’t have an answer to this question at all, and it didn’t affect my personal enjoyment, but it was certainly something I noticed and thought about.

But I am doing this wrong. Reviews shouldn’t start with a negative should they? Ok, back it up, start with what I liked.

1. I like the first person noir feel Low Town had. The story starts with the protagonist finding the murdered victim of a well publicized missing child case and against his own best interest getting involved in the investigation. The narrative voice was STRONG. ‘The Warden’ has an obvious feel for the streets and quite realistically moves between the underworld he currently owns a piece of and the law he used to be part of. Take the best parts of Sam Vimes (feeling the street trough the souls of his feet) and Tracer Bullet (giving just a bit of levity to the proceedings).

2. I like the city that the book entirely takes place in. Getting an actually grasp on it is tough; it feels like Dicken’s London but in a timeline without any advances in gunpowder. Mostly we see it through the underbelly; drug lords and minor traffickers. But making the protagonist a drug lord opens up the whole city; there is nothing out of place with his travels taking him anywhere from the slums to the house of nobles. When we do see the lawful side of things we see exactly the corrupt force one would expect; complete with a real monster at the top that deserves his own book.

3. And finally I can’t fault the pacing or story at all; it kept me hooked throughout. Some of the twists are telegraphed a bit too hard but that is forgivable. Flashbacks are short but interesting and while they don’t answer everything they help fill in the protagonist’s rise and fall in society. It is a dark story for sure; the Warden is not against using violence to keep his territory and a reader can never forget he is only temperately back on the investigative trail.

Ok, I have had time to think about it and I do admit I am still kinda annoyed by the way race was portrayed at times. There was a culture that was very much a Chinese stereotype and while the protagonist himself doesn’t know how much they are playing to the part it is a deliberate choice. Women also didn’t a strong showing in Low Town; those with any ambition especially . This is a book that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on the shelves ten years ago and yet it is not weird to see a semi-recent release fail the Betchel test completely.

Reservations aside I enjoyed this book quite a lot and will be rating it higher than some of my criticisms suggest. I am already cussing that my library doesn’t have the sequel in audio format; I will have to track down that book in another form it appears. Low Town was a good blend of fantasy and Noir it is an author I will certainly be reading again.

4 Stars

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10 thoughts on “Fantasy Review: ‘Low Town’ by Daniel Polansky

  1. I really enjoyed Polansky’s The Builders and I’d love to read more. I am not usually scared away by Bechdel test-failing stories, for some reason, and I’m certainly willing to try this.

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  2. Thank you – I’ve looked at this once or twice, but your comments suggest that there’s enough of the tired old tropes to offset my enjoyment – so I will continue to not get round to it (also noting that I’m generally not a big fan of underworld narratives; heist yes, drug crime hell no – we watched Sicario last night, and I could appreciate it but it mostly reminded me why I’d never bothered seeing Sicario..).

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    • Never heard of Scario, may have to look it up because I am fascinated by the drug lords; especially if done realistically and not just for shock and awe. The Wire–yes, Scarface–No..

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  3. Interesting review… and I learned something new πŸ™‚ I hadn’t heard about Bechdel test before, but knowing about it sure does open up new frontiers when reading books/watching films. Thanks for this πŸ™‚

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    • The Bechdel test is interesting. It started as a comic line that was a very hard line qualification but was cooped as a general pattern watch. I.E. a book isn’t bad because it doesn’t pass nor is it indicative of anything on its own; but if every book from the publisher doesn’t pass it then a trend is established. Certainly it is not the be all end all of anything in particular but it is something that flares once in a while as i read a book.

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  4. Having recently read a short story by this author, I was extremely curious as soon as I saw his name in your review: some of the elements you quoted might prove annoying at the very least, but I guess I will not know until I see for myself…
    Very intriguing review, thanks for sharing! πŸ™‚

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  5. Low Town sounds a little gritty for my tastes, and I still need to try Mark Lawrence and Joe Abercrombie in that vein. I’ll pass for now, but I’ll certainly keep track of this author for the future! Thanks for the helpful review πŸ™‚

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