Stephen Aryan's Reviews > Low Town

Low Town by Daniel Polansky
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Aug 20, 2011

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The Straight Razor Cure is an (aka Low Town) unusual book for a number of reasons. From the cover, with a hooded figure and the above description, you might think it’s just another fantasy novel focusing on the criminal underworld. The cover is actually slightly misleading because it suggests the main character is someone who wields magic, whereas he’s a former soldier turned criminal kingpin and drug dealer with no magical ability. Also, although magic is featured in the novel, it’s actually a small part of the overall picture and the story is firmly a street level tale about crime. It deals with murder, revenge, drug dealing, prostitution, and a whole range of other seedy stuff not mentioned, or only referred to in passing in other fantasy novels. If reading about any of that bothers you, or you don’t like the idea of the main character being a drug dealer, then I would seek out a different novel.

This is the darkest, most disturbing and unflinching fantasy novel focusing on the criminal underworld that I’ve read. In Scott Lynch’s GB books the main character, Locke, is a con man, but there is a lot of humour, fun and amusing moments to balance out the darker aspects of the story. In tone the easiest way to describe Lynch’s books would be like Buffy, a good drama with light and shade. There is humour in The Straight Razor Cure, but it is also on the dark side, and very in keeping with the grim setting and tone, making it feel more like an Elmore Leonard novel. I have few complaints about this novel, but the first would be that because it is such a brutal story, dealing with a series of fairly unpleasant murders, I would have preferred a little more light to combat the shade. After finishing it I had to go and read something more upbeat that hinted at the idea of hope and that not all people were selfish and unpleasant. Even though there was a resolution, I didn’t feel elated or happy by the ending, so even though I enjoyed the story, it did not leave me in a good place.

As mentioned earlier, the main character, Warden, is not a nice guy. He’s an ugly man, a disgraced soldier and intelligence agent who fell from grace and then made his mark on the city by becoming a drug dealer and crime lord of a city district. The other unusual element to the novel is that it’s told in the first person. At times it was difficult to read because of how Warden saw the world and riding along with him was not a pleasant experience. Given what’s happened to him it’s not surprising he doesn’t think much of humanity and has a very bleak outlook, but it does make for quite a depressing read.

The other problem I had with the novel was the language which was very over the top at times. I understand the need to create a certain level of realism, and in such a dangerous and unpleasant world, people will talk in a particular way. Also in life threatening situations, saying ‘oh fudge’ instead of using an expletive is unrealistic. I generally don’t have an issue with swearing, but there were moments where extremely strong swear words and phrases were used for no real reason that I could see and they were scattered with a blunderbuss approach. Sometimes the swearing was not there to highlight a tense scene, or underline a strong emotion, it was just there. The problem was the next time that swear word showed up it had lost its shock value and impact, which would have tied me into the scene and make me feel as shocked as the character.

The story was enjoyable as the mystery surrounding the murders was intriguing with Warden being pulled into investigating, mostly against his will. It’s difficult to talk about the investigation and mystery itself without giving anything away, but it is full of a lot of twists and turns and you will not see some of them coming.

It’s also worth noting that Warden is not a reluctant hero, or even someone doing this because he’s seeking a form a redemption. He’s essentially strong-armed by several people into solving the murders, because if he doesn’t they will nag him, or in one case, his life will be forfeit. There’s also the issue that the murders are bad for business and if everyone is focused and worried about their children, his dealing will suffer. Every character wants something, whether its fame or fortune or glory, or is motivated by something, but as far as I could see Warden doesn’t want anything. He gets up, sells his merchandise, defends his territory from time to time, comes home, eats and goes to sleep, usually in a drug-induced haze. He is just living in a rut and has fallen quite far from where he used to be as an intelligence agent. I wish there had been something underneath the routine that spurred him on, a goal that he aspired to rather than just existing.

The story takes place very firmly on the streets of Rigus, a city in the Thirteen Lands, but we never leave its dirty streets and seedy establishments. There might be a wild and wonderful world out there filled with fantastical creatures and other strange beings, but I doubt it fits in with the world Polansky has created. This is a crime novel with an icing of fantasy, where the fantastical elements are almost incidental to the world and the people living in it. Magic is a dangerous and unpredictable weapon, used by a few, and most avoid it because of the risks involved.

Overall this was an intentionally bleak and unpredictable crime novel, set in a fantasy world, where the intriguing story and the mystery kept me going, more than my interest in the main character, who was not very likeable by design. This was definitely a unique fantasy read, and I would recommend this novel to people who like fantasy novels without alien races, and those who prefer a more adult story, or a crime fan who wants to foray into fantasy for the first time but is afraid it’s all going to be elves and dragons.
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