I just finished reading Low Town, a wonderful novel by Daniel Polansky (you can follow @DanielPolansky). This may have been one of my favorite reads of the summer, which says a lot considering I’ve diced my way through about ten different books already. In the story, we follow the investigations of a man called the Warden. Although the Warden is effectively an underworld drug-dealer, he takes up the heroic mantle of solving a case involving murdered children from Low Town. The story is a lovely bit of genre-bending, giving us elements of both fantasy and mystery//noir. I haven’t read a ton of urban fantasy, but I think I started the relationship out on the right foot with Mr. Polansky’s debut novel. Here’s what I liked about this one:
1. Sympathetic Characters- Polansky does an insanely good job of using the basic building blocks of a wonderful story. His character is utterly likeable, even as he does and says things that we clearly detest in every day life. There are scenes in which he deals or takes drugs. He blows people off. He burns bridges and picks fights. And yet, a number of factors have us rooting for the Warden to figure things out and to take some names in the process. It’s an excellent example of how attached characters can make your narrator look better. The adoration of Adolphus, Adeline, and Wren give the Warden a group that look up to or respect him. I think this always entices the reader to search for what exactly there is to respect, even if you have to wade past drug dealings to find it.
2. Honest Worldbuilding- My temptation in stories is to try and fit a piece of woldbuilding in. I come up with some cool piece of magic and find the best possible way to shove it into my already working and running story. I felt that Rigus is built with care and consistency. The races of the city are authentic. The interactions between nobility and the poor make sense. The magical additions all increase the narrative and tension, rather than feeling like side-shows. I think Polansky is helped by the perspective through which the Warden sees the world, but I also think he just had a great sense of what this world would be, and he fleshed it out so that we’re able to see it too.
3. The Proper Flashback- I’ve been reading a ton of books this summer that pull us out of the moment to remind us of something or to show us an explanation of something… Polansky really did an excellent job in this story of using his chapter breaks and his narrative rhythm to always keep us in the story. Oftentimes, authors tease. It’s good to tease… but when you bring us to a fascinating circumstance and then pull us out for a walk down memory lane, we’re going to get a little upset with you… We’re going to want to skip it… unless, of course, the memory is equally fascinating and dangerous and important as the present moment. You got the sense, as you flashed back to memories of the war or the plague or whatever, that each memory was a crucial piece to the puzzle that you were trying to solve alongside the Warden. It made it easy to run forward with the plot.
4. Turn of Phrase- I say this about only a handful of folks, but Polansky’s ability to turn a proper phrase with clever connotation was one of the tops I’ve seen this summer. I’m still in that stage as a writer where I write what the character is seeing, and that’s most of it. I don’t necessarily have the chops yet to twist the wordings and write the clever lines that make readers go, “Wow, that’s how I think about it” or “I wish I had come up with that.” I encountered this a ton and I encountered more as we progressed in the novel. More proof, in my eyes, that the better we get to know a character (as a reader OR an author), the more comfortable we get in their voice and the easier it is to write better (whether you’re writing for better humor or sarcasm or perspective, they all seem to pop if we’ve gotten a handle of who the character really is).
I normally come up with something I didn’t like about the book, some improvement I would have made, and in this one I’m mostly empty-handed. I still have to discuss this book with a friend, but in some ways I was surprised when the climax the story leads us to sort of happens off-page. I’d never seen someone do that at such a peak moment, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. All in all, the story is done well and he twists us pretty well through a number of turns. I haven’t looked in to it, but I’m guessing there are a few more novels that will take me into the heart of Low Town and I’m excited to go.