Star Rating: *** 3/5
Low Town by Daniel Polansky.
Subgenre: low fantasy.
Review by Silicon.
In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its champion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent. Forgotten war hero. Independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.
The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his discovery of a murdered child down a dead-end street . . . setting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investigated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psychotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted.
Overall, I'd say I liked this book, but it didn't hit any kind of urgency for me to continue reading others. It had a number of unusual elements (the main character's occupation, the city itself), but it felt ... incomplete. Rushed, almost. Honestly, it felt like an average debut novel to me--good elements, potential, but not quite polished and smooth yet. I'm not sure if it is actually a debut novel [NOTE: look that up]. Many of the problems I had with it were fixable; the kinds of things that get better with practice and editing (which is why I give debut authors 2-3 books in a series if they come out as ***, while I'm harsher on experienced authors).
When the bodies of children start showing up all over Low Town, main character the Warden finds himself compelled to go searching for the killer. First by choice, then under an ultimatum from Low Town's Secret Service, which suspects HIM as the murderer--conveniently, as they f--king hate him. Given the Warden's unique position as a fallen former detective, and current drug dealer, he has access to both sides of the law and is perfectly placed to go hunting.
The plot was ... okay. It wasn't so much a detective novel as it was a thriller. The Warden instantly focuses on a suspicious aristocrat who acts pugnacious, sneaky, and underhanded. Furthermore, the Blade (aka suspicious dude) is in cahoots with an even more suspicious guy--asshole magician dude (Sorcerer Brightfellow)! Who the Warden instantly makes enemies with because why not.
Actually, that describes a lot of the book. So many vendettas against The Warden--understandable, cause he ditched his police job to go sell drugs, I guess, but man are these Secret Service guys fouling up their OWN investigation. The Warden isn't a man afraid of starting MORE vendettas either--even if it would be more in his interest to make friends with someone.
Yes, there were Clues, but it really wasn't a mystery story. You, the Reader, basically had to accept whatever deductions the Warden makes because he knows Low Town better. Cool, cool, maybe it was intended to be a thriller after all. Except the motivations for it becoming a thriller didn't really make sense.
Secret Service Guy 1: Dang, someone is killing kids.
SSG 2: Hey, remember that guy we hate?
SSG 1: IT'S PROBABLY HIM.
SSG 2: LET'S TORTURE HIM.
But then the Warden gets off because he reminds Old Man the leader of the SSGs that he was a pretty awesome detective.
So Old Man is all, okay you get 1 week or else we're blaming YOU.
Now, this did not really make sense to me. Cool, the SSGs get to torture the guy they hate but doesn't that leave the REAL killer out on the streets, merrily murdering more kids? There's literally no evidence that the Warden is the murderer, except that he finds the first body. I guess their motive is to REALLY MOTIVATE the Warden into solving the crimes for them. Except Idiot SSG (Crowley) + Co. keeps trying to murder him while he's solving the crime.
I wish I could give spoilers because the Final Motivation Reveal was actually really good, and made the random child murders make a whole lot more sense AND provide a chilling end result, but you find that out in the last 100 pgs or so, therefore NO SPOILERS. (I wasn't too fond of the perpetrators, but the motivation was excellent). I feel like the ending needed more foreshadowing--you could feel it was supposed to be a twist, but it wasn't very surprising, to me.
I felt the characters (with an exception of Celia, who was just the Pretty Smart Innocent Love Interest) were well done. I liked the Warden, who was fallible but also very human. Wren was probably my favorite character (stubborn kid who follows the Warden around determinedly). I also liked Crispin, the Warden's former fellow detective, and the relationship of distrust but also grudging respect between them was excellent.
The Warden is a belligerent, occasionally stupid guy who fits in well with the lowlife found in Low Town. He's definitely not a Gary Stu, thank heavens--it would have been very easy for the Author to write that he was just a Fallen Moral Man, who just needed love and purpose to find his way! Fortunately the Warden is a survivor, a fighter, and probably a drug addict. I've never read a book where the MC sells drugs for a living, so that was refreshing and different. I was curious as to how he could do his job and solve crimes given HOW OFTEN he took hits off his own stash, but hey. Maybe he's used to it? We get hints of regret for leaving his former life, but he doesn't angst. I enjoyed the Army flashbacks that show how MC moved from street urchin to soldier to detective to drug dealer. Though his whole fall from grace wasn't really explained, or emphasized. It probably was briefly, but I can't remember so it must have been very short.
The Crane, the kindly old magician who takes in lost children without judgement, was also very well done.
Celia irritated me completely. Her character type tends to, though.
I did like the innkeeper, MC's best friend and former fellow soldier. He made sense, and felt very real.
A lot of the Bad Guys seemed like just that--Bad Guys, with Bad Motives, and Bad Attitudes, and probably Bad Breath. This gets better near the end (TWIST!) but they weren't very grey for the majority of the book.
My major issue with this book was, as I said before, character agency. For the majority of the time, it felt like the Warden was just being pulled around by the plot. It didn't really feel like he was making the choices.
The setting was excellently done. I enjoyed Low Town, a dirty fantasy city where everyone is an asshole and knows it. It felt real, gritty, and dangerous. The Warden deals with a lot of unsightly characters. Even though there is magic in this setting, it's not overplayed except for its use in the plot (terrifying mystery magical creature let loose! Magicians suspected!). I did like the touch about the Crane's wards holding back the Plague, which the Warden remembers with fear from his childhood (those flashbacks: really well done). There's a lot of fights, and the Warden gets beat up more than once. I just wish that more trickles of worldbuilding had been allowed to come through--I really didn't get any sense of the history of the city, its relationship to neighboring cities, the religion, etc. A lot of the worldbuilding is just dropped abruptly into the story in a few brief words, but there isn't enough for me to really feel the connections--Low Town felt very isolated to me: an island of setting in an amorphous sea of worldbuilding you couldn't really see clearly.
So, what we got was good, but I wanted more.
Also good! This book is written from the first person perspective of the Warden, a stylistic choice that can easily lead to angst, incessant introspection, and annoyance for the reader if s/he doesn't like the MC. None of that was an issue here. You get to know the Warden but you're not wrapped up solely in his thoughts and opinions. And you never feel like he is Always Right because he's the FPOV--he's wrong plenty of times, and makes stupid mistakes too! Which he acknowledges! That was great.
Overall the writing style was not overly descriptive, but not plain either--you did get a good sense of the city, the characters, the personalities that the Warden meets.
Pacing was ... okay. I didn't really feel the urgency that the Warden must have felt when he got his ultimatum. It felt like short periods of intense action followed by slower sequences of eating, drinking, and doing drugs. The ending felt distinctly rushed. I know it was supposed to be a twist, but it wasn't really surprising. There is an excellent line from Agatha Christie's Towards Zero that describes it--"She was like a child who, by clutching her fist tightly over a sweet, drew attention to her hidden treasure." (paraphrased from memory).
Overall, I enjoyed the writing style. It was a first person POV done well, which is rare.
Great, now I get to talk about the Heretics.
The Heretics, also known as the Kiren, are the people that occupy Kirentown, a stereotypical Chinatown as you might see in stories such as James Bond. The Kiren deeply frustrated me because I really, really did NOT want to see them as real-world parallels but it was impossible NOT to. The main Heretic we come into contact with is Ling Chi the Bond Villain. The rest of Low Town society is done really well. Why, oh why, did the book need to include such a clear and obvious stereotype such as Ling Chi?! WHY? The Warden speaks normally with everyone else EXCEPT our dear Bond Villain, with whom he assumes a bizarrely indirect, "formal" way of speech that is supposed to indicate Ling Chi's exotic and strange culture?
I bowed very slightly. "My most intimate confidant does me honor in marking my absence."It was hard to read and difficult to understand and completely unnecessary. Yes, the Warden is good friends with the Kiren and appears to be accepted into and accepts their culture but it still felt ... weird. Good Guy Warden doesn't treat Heretics with dismissal and mockery, cause he's a Good Guy! Yay, cookie!
This was further emphasized by the way the author occasionally uses "white" to refer to the non-exotic, non-Heretic, non-Kiren people.
I guess, yay there's some representation of non-Western cultures. At least that happened? And they're not all evil?
I'm probably extra-pissed at this because it was ALMOST OKAY. ALMOST. But no. Research, people!
Gender-wise, there were very few female characters, but only one was an outright idiot. The others were competent and likable (especially the seer), even though they were mostly in minor roles. Wasn't really bothered, but it is something to note.
If you liked the focus on Camorr in Locke Lamora, the nasty city underworld of gangs, and the corrupt officials, you'd like the similar focus on Low Town in this book.
If you like asshole characters who are bad and don't want to be good, yet aren't black-and-white Evil Dudes, you'll like the MC of this book.
If you like races against time that aren't too fast, you'll like the pacing in this book.
If you're curious about how a drug-dealing MC can save people, try this book.
A lot of the book felt like "it was almost good, BUT--". It came VERY CLOSE to being awesome.
I feel like a lot of the issues I had with it were fixable, and probably will disappear in future books. They were very similar to what I see in basically all debut books--rushed pacing, problematic worldbuilding trickle (though here we had too little info, rather than too much). Bad guys that are Too Bad. Character motivations that didn't 100% make sense. The problematic Ling Chi, who would've vanished or changed with a bit more research and sensitivity.
But it was also a well done FPOV, a great city that really came to life thanks to the main character's interactions with all sorts of people, a novel main character that I didn't hate and rather enjoyed, humor, and good character relationships. I especially appreciated the fallible but not angsty MC--a guy who got shit done, but didn't call himself a hero, or try to be one.
Overall, it was a fairly decent book. A solid ***.