The Low Down on Low Town: A Review of Low Town by Daniel Polansky
A while back I discussed Daniel Polansky’s guest advertisement post on Night Bazaar. Now, I’ve gotten around to actually reading the book he was peddling at the time. Low Town is a good first novel, but I am not totally sold on it.
Let’s be honest, The Straight Razor Cure is a much better title than Low Town (but we’ll stick to the American title). The novel is about the Warden (no other name needed), a disgraced former secret agent turned drug dealer and sorta crime boss. He is unwillingly thrust back into his old life when a series of child murders occur in Low Town.
The plot itself is good if rather unoriginal. A marriage of classic noir with urban fantasy, the noir element is clearly the dominant parent. This poses some problems as the big twist revelation is telegraphed painfully early and made more obvious as the novel goes on. Coupled with the fact that the Warden is a truly terrible detective (saved either by plot armor or plot stupidity I don’t know). What recommends the plot is, I think, the quick pace that is set. The novel does not rest long for readers to really start questioning elements of it (including the numerous plot holes).
The Warden himself is a mixed bag. A riff on the traditional hard boiled detective, he is at times interesting and at times loathsome. He is also one to try a reader’s patience. Given that this is, keeping in the noir tradition, a first person narrative, the reader is for good and ill stuck with the Warden.
As a note on his character, I don’t get why he had to be a disgraced former “cop.” He would have worked just as well, if not better, had he been a plain drug dealer or midlevel crime boss who is justifiably pissed off that someone is committing child murders in his territory. I could see that, but then the reader would not have the pleasure of reading the Warden have to solve the case on a deadline (or die).
The other characters are okay though not as well written as the Warden, but calk that up to the issues with first person narration. I would also echo some of the criticism leveled at the novel over the issue of gender representation. There are only four female characters worth noting: one only has a chapter, another appears in two, and the other two have more appearances but one is typified as a mother-figure. So only one female character is truly major (and is slightly better characterized).
While I’m on the subject of representation, let’s touch on race and sexuality. There is a fair amount of racism in the book. This does reflect historical feelings of the period, but can be and is offensive. Especially with the clear negative images of Chinese (the Kiren) and the Dutch (the Dren). I personally disliked this aspect of the novel. And then there is the rampant homophobia. Although much of it is spouted by various antagonists, the Warden also takes part in veins similar to Marlowe and Spade (read The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon). While the racism may be historically accurate, the homophobia is less defensible that way (given that I don’t remember seeing any gay characters at all). I did not like this aspect either.
The world building is the strongest part of the book. I personally rather like temporal mashups, and I think Polansky does a fine job. Things are not quite clear at times, but it is understandable. My one issue is that things are a little too obvious in the parallels. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, the Kiren are clearly meant to be Chinese and the Dren are the Dutch (United Provinces, Staadholder, Donknacht). The Thirteen Lands is clearly Victorian Britain with some French added in (the Queen, a dissolute Crown Prince, Aton). While I like the mashup, the fantasy counterparts could be made significantly less obvious.
Finally, I want to touch on the villains. I don’t know who is stupider, the Warden or the opposition. Really, neither one could think their way out of a paper bag. The Warden is a terrible detective saved only by the fact that the hero wins. The villains are just too damn stupid (although the same is true for Gutman and his gang from The Maltese Falcon). Really, how many freaking times did you have the Warden in your grasp? Beyond that, the motive for the crimes are a little iffy.
For people who have read my blog for a while now, you know I’m rather harsh in my reviews, even if I adore a work. Despite many of my issues with Low Town, it is still a rather enjoyable book. I only hope Polansky’s next book is much better.