Previously I’ve talked about my previous novel attempts, difficult revisions and cutting, and actually getting work done. Whereas I normally review books in a vacuum, this time I am reviewing a book and weaving some lessons learned into my own Pain of Publication series.
Low Town is the debut novel of fellow Dickinson alumni, Daniel Polansky. Mr. Polansky knew many of the same people I did in college, but even in a small liberal arts school like Dickinson our paths never crossed. It’s a damn shame because Low Town is a rollicking mash up of two great genres: noir and fantasy. The author skillfully weaves a first person narrative in a way that vibrantly develops the setting into a living, breathing, festering, and foul supporting character unto itself.
The book is named after the impoverished underbelly of the Imperial Capital and the vast majority of the action takes place in this fetid urban sprawl. The book follows a man simply known as The Warden: an independent drug dealer with a wonderfully checkered past. He ends up caught in a tangled web of child murders where his own conscience and the machinations of others forces him into solving one last mystery. Although we only see things through the eyes of The Warden, we get a good feel for the supporting cast and an incredible appreciation for the misery that is Low Town. The author pulls no punches depicting graphic violence and frequent drug use. There is a sense of history to the world, but the author walks the tight rope of unfurling the past slowly and only inasmuch as it bears an impact on the story of The Warden. Proper nouns and slang give Low Town its own feel without impairing the readability of the novel. However, only three or four characters besides The Warden manage to stick out. This did not bother me though, as the same word count that often goes into character development was instead packaged as setting development. Low Town was great, but if you like your fantasy noble then stay out of Low Town.
The narrative is decidedly noir, with a bit of magic thrown in. It works very well. Insert magically themed substances for common street drugs of today and a few wizard-types into your typical hard-boiled story and you probably wouldn’t be far off from the feel of Low Town. As you might expect, The Warden ends up getting deeper and deeper into trouble. The author does a good job of causing problems for The Warden without undermining the strength and competence of his character. However, there a few slight missteps. The Warden does get high on his own supply, and other than giving him hyper-focus and hangover cures there seems to be little ill effect. The problem being, the setting and my own baggage as a reader suggests that drug abuse has negative side effects. Those downsides never really manifest for The Warden. Furthermore, I always have trouble gauging how surprising a story is because I smugly assume myself to be pretty Genre Savvy, but there were some points where I said to myself it can’t be this simple, and I was proven right. On the one hand, this is more easily forgivable because the narrative is first person and thus the ‘filter’ of our information is inherently biased, but I can’t help but feel there were a few things that surprised the narrator that didn’t surprise me.
A-. I feel bad dwelling on the parts that were less than perfect, but believe me, this is a very high quality and fast-paced story. The rich setting that Mr. Polansky built in his debut novel leaves me eagerly anticipating more.
What I Took Away from this Book
I envy the natural ease in which the setting flows. By carefully doling out information and writing dialogue peppered with slang that, in context, makes very good sense, Polansky makes his world leap off the page. Although setting slang can easily sound hokey or forced, when done right, it is just too great a tool to ignore. Essentially, small phrases of dialogue that were used to convey annoyance, disgust, etc. can now pull double duty as world-builders. So, despite my misgivings about my own ability to ‘make it work’ I am going to change my story so instead of common expletives and exclamations, I will have a host of world-specific slang.
Low Town’s first person narrative and limited number of characters is a double-edged sword. It works here because of its blistering pace and The Warden’s inherent likability despite his profession, but it does cause the ‘plot space’ to be small. What I mean by that, is if you’re looking out for twists and turns, there are only so many places it can go by the latter portions of the book. I think the increased development of the main characters, and the Warden in particular, makes this choice a good one, but for what I’m writing having too limited a view of my world might defeat what I’m aiming for.