The first chapter of Low Town, Daniel Polansky’s debut novel, opens with a piss and closes with a puke. Between the two are terse introductions to thugs, pimps, pushers, and Low Town itself, the corrupt borough they infest. All this would be standard if Low Town were just a hardboiled detective yarn. It’s not. Instead, Polansky transplants his love of crime noir into a magic-steeped, secondary-world fantasy setting. It’s an inherently troublesome mash-up that could only work in the hands of a silly satirist or a deft, sensitive dramatist with the blackest sense of humor. Polansky is wholeheartedly the latter—and Low Town is brilliant proof.
The charred heart and reluctant hero of Low Town is a man known only as The Warden. A disgraced-cop-turned-dealer who slings arcane narcotics like pixie’s breath and dreamvine, he’s staked out a corner of Low Town’s thriving underworld through the sober application of brute force, reputation, and bribery, but he’s prone to dipping into his own stash. His roughhewn veneer cracks when children in Low Town start turning up dead and defiled; the rash of killings dredges up The Warden’s vestigial sense of justice, not to mention the festering trauma of his own violent youth. Against his baser instincts, he launches his own freelance investigation, even as he attempts to take a thieving orphan under his wing and keep his own demons bottled. Or at least medicated.
Predictably, the investigation leads The Warden to the upper echelons of Rigus, the decaying metropolis whose shadow Low Town inhabits. Unpredictably, Polansky keeps things refreshingly gutter-centric. Low Town’s milieu is a patchwork of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Victorian era, but it sticks predominantly to none of these settings, freeing the book to smear gritty, urban industrialization all over swords and sorcery. Magic, like any other commodity, is a luxury of the elite. Racial and class disparity is rampant. And Polansky twists every hardboiled convention he can grab to fit his already-twisted framework. Wielding vivid characters and scalpel-sharp banter worthy of fellow dark fantasists Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie, Polanski ratchets up the pace—a juggling act that becomes more frantic as traces of the Red Plague, an apocalyptic pandemic that nearly exterminated Low Town’s population during The Warden’s boyhood, appear on the corpse of a murdered child.
The book’s flaws don’t significantly hinder it, but they do amount to some squandered potential. When it comes to criminally underdeveloped characters, Yancey The Rhymer—for all intents and purposes, a Jay-Z-like rapper who’s risen from Low Town to the height of fame in Rigus—cries for more page-time. And after an evocative rollout, a diminutive pimp named Kid Mac is abandoned. Polanski practically telegraphs his plot twists, but the suspenseful buildup and rich payoff are worth it. And The Warden’s drug addiction never has any significant consequence, and in fact seems to appear and disappear as it suits the story. Low Town’s most glaring lapse, though, is the lack of explanation of The Warden’s epic fall from grace, but that feels more like a setup for a sequel than an oversight.
Here’s hoping that sequel comes quickly. For a first-time author, Polansky has managed to craft an assured, roaring, and rollicking hybrid, a cross-genre free-for-all that relishes its tropes while spitting out their bones. And he does it all while spinning one hell of a gripping mystery. Much like its grim, perversely charismatic antihero, Low Town stakes a narrow turf—then completely owns every inch of it.