the Little Red Reviewer

Low Town: Risk taking done right

Posted on: September 9, 2011

Low Town (UK: The Straight Razor Cure), by Daniel Polansky

Published in Aug 2011

Where I got it: received review copy from the nice people at Doubleday/Random House

Visit DanielPolansky.com for more info

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review, the quick version:

Go get a copy of this book right now. all the hype surrounding it? completely deserved.  More than the sum of its parts, Low Town is the kind of dark fantasy novel you’ve been waiting your whole life to read. For three days Polansky fed every secret weakness I’ve got, along with a few guilty pleasures I didn’t even know existed.  Not a book for the faint of heart, Polansky took some major risks with Low Town. And every single one of them paid off.

review, the long version:

Surrounded by ridiculous hype, too big to fit comfortably in my handbag, with a title and cover art that didn’t tell me anything, and starring a drug addict/pusher thug.  I stared at Low Town as it sat on my shelf. And the damn thing just stared back.  Like it didn’t give a shit if I read it or not.

To prove that I was just as stubborn as the book was, one evening I picked it up, planning to read maybe 20 pages.  90 minutes and 75 pages later, all I could say was “holy shit is this good”.

Last night I wrote a thousand word emotional reaction to Low Town. Yes, it was that kind of book for me. But because I wisely hit “Save”, and not “publish”, hopefully today you’ll get a more rational style review, instead of a straight up unfiltered emotional reaction.  There’s nothing I enjoy more than a book that keeps me up all night the day after I finish it. Low Town was that kind of book too.  While flirting with being the bastard love child of Joe Abercrombie and Raymond Chandler, and written with the flowing invective style of Scott Lynch, Low Town is most certainly rated Super R.

Low Town is also one of those wonderfully subtle books where although the plot is thrillingly compelling, that’s not what makes this book so incredible.  Aspiring writers, you wanna know how to create atmosphere and worlds that breathe all on their own?  Wanna know how to write characters whose hidden depths ooze out their shadows to gently but surely addict your readers to learning their secrets? Wanna know how risk taking is really done? Read Low Town.

UK Cover art

Written in first person, we see Low Town through the eyes of Warden.  Fallen from grace detective turned low life drug pusher, Warden is just trying to survive.  Warden grew up in Low Town, and he loves his city, even if it doesn’t always love him back.

At first, I wasn’t sure if I much cared for Warden. He’s certainly not the type of guy I’d like to hang out with. Once upon a time, the man had been at the top of his game. Detective with the secret police, good money, good life.  One bad decision and it all went down the shitter.  He’s unflinchingly honest about how he makes his living as a drug dealer, selling mostly to rich stupid aristocrats who get a thrill off their interactions with ghetto trash like him.  It’s a shitty life, but someones gotta do it.

We learn about Warden’s past oh so slowly.  A beautiful slow burn, It’s almost as if he doesn’t want his secrets told, as if Polansky had to ask his permission to tell his story, to expose his deepest darkest secrets, his true regrets. I wonder if during their conversation if the longest sentence Warden voiced was “don’t tell them that. that’s private”.  I love it when a author doesn’t tell me everything, when they simply set the stage and put everything just within arms reach, and just wait for me to beg for it.  Well played Polansky, well played.

Warden needs people to think he’s a thug.  He’d never get any respect on the streets if anyone knew how he watched his family die around him when plague ravaged the city, or how he saved a little girls life by taking her to the safest place he knew. Or how his personal sense of doing the right thing was his undoing. While he’s medicating his fears and doubts with drugs, I’m medicating my with escapism (why hello there epic fantasy, come here often?).  In fact, if you are a recovering addict, this is probably a book to avoid. It doesn’t glamorize drug use, but doesn’t condemn it either. Speaking of casual drug use, where’s my coffee?

I fully expect some Warden fanfic to start making the rounds.

This is one of the darkest and most casually violent books I have ever read, so it may not be everyone’s cup of tea.  But there are also scenes that are so touching, so emotional that if you don’t have some kind of reaction, there is something wrong with you. Low Town also has some of the funniest, wittiest dialog I have ever read.  Including the best line that will ever be uttered at a whorehouse.

On the surface, Low Town is a  noir-ish thriller fantasy novel.  it’s got magic and sorcerers and talismans and monsters and hallucinogenic drugs with fun made up names.  But it’s also a multi-layered action packed murder mystery, dripping with paranoia  and bodily harm and fears and twists and turns that will rip you up inside.  Because sometimes, in fantasy novels as in life, there isn’t a good choice or a bad choice, there’s simply a bad choice and a worse choice.  I guess those fantasy worlds populated by fantasy characters aren’t so different from real life after all.

Haven’t figured it out yet?  Low Town is a unbelievable stunning debut. I guess I could have just said that at the start.   Even if you think it’s too dark, too violent, or too swear wordy for you, give it a chance. Even I didn’t much care for Warden at first blush, and you see how well that worked out for me  (by the way, if I ever catch you or anyone else calling him a thug or low life fucking druggie, you’ll have me to answer to).

aww crap, I forgot to mention the plot, didn’t I? eh, I’m sure there’s some kinda blurby thing on Amazon.

Spanish Cover Art

 

German cover art

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8 Responses to "Low Town: Risk taking done right"

Really glad you liked this one:) I loved it too!!

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Ok — read what you said here, and now think I need to read this book. Just found it in the library’s catalog and put a hold on it.
:)

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This sounds good. This is the first I have heard of it!

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Thanks for your enthusiastic review! I’ll have to stick it on my wish list!

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I have heard a bit about this (yeah, like there’s anyone who hasn’t yet), I didn’t think it would be my sort of thing, but this is the second very good review I’ve seen now. Damn! My TBR pile really does not need to grow.

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Sold! You’ve inspired me to track this down & add it to my book stack :)

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[...] Low town by Daniel Polansky (2011) one of those wonderfully subtle books where although the plot is thrillingly compelling, that’s not what makes this book so incredible. Aspiring writers, you wanna know how to create atmosphere and worlds that breathe all on their own? Wanna know how to write characters whose hidden depths ooze out their shadows to gently but surely addict your readers to learning their secrets? Wanna know how risk taking is really done? Read Low Town. [...]

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I actually already have this one in my pile, but like with you it’s just sitting there, so far. Might have to dig it out and dust it off and see what happens … :D

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