Friday, 7 October 2011

'Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure' - Daniel Polansky

Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure is the debut novel by Daniel Polansky, and in the US it's simply known as Low Town. It is a dark fantasy novel, set a in a new world created by Daniel Polansky, and it's supposed to be very dark, gritty and violent. This is the first book in a series of books all set in Low Town. Someone is murdering children in Low Town, and only one man can stop the killer. I've seen a lot of very positive reviews for The Straight Razor Cure and I was delighted when Daniel Polansky asked the publisher to send me a copy to review.

After reading only a few pages from The Straight Razor Cure it reminds me of two books I've read recently, Among Thieves and A Serpent Uncoiled. Low Town is a district in the great city Rigus, where the poor and rejects from finer society live. It's a derelict maze of alleys and passageways ruled by criminals and shunned by the law. A dark stain on the pristine map of the city. This probably sounds familiar if you read Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick. Warden is an ex-military, ex-police officer who now runs his one man crime empire peddling drugs to the rich and the poor. He has literally carved out his own territory, but he makes sure he does not get in over his head, and the size of his territory is enough to make a living. Nothing more; nothing Less. Unfortunately, he is also a user of his own products. Having very recently read the excellent A Serpent Uncoiled I cannot help but finding similarities between the two protagonists. This bodes well for The Straight Razor Cure.

That Warden is a dangerous man you should not cross is made perfectly clear in the opening chapters, where he is forced to deal with a rival dealer, who is trying to muscle in on his territory. Unarmed he takes them on and utilises the skills he learned fighting a war from the trenches. No fancy moves, no honour, just put them down before they stick you. Warden is a beast in a scrap and I certainly wouldn't want to stand in his way. Often he samples his wares before a fight, and it's hard to tell if his recklessness comes from the drugs or not. The melee is well written. It's fluid and brutal, making it feel realistic, and also giving you a real taste of danger urgency.

Alas, Warden is not allowed to quietly live out his life selling drugs and drinking beer in the pub he co-owns with an old friend. When he finds the mutilated remains of a young girl in an alleyway, he is forced to a reluctant reunion with his old partner, Crispin. When Warden worked for the intelligence service Crispin was his partner. Quite quickly it becomes clear that Crispin and his fellows are in over their head, and Warden has to step in. It's a little bit of a trope, but one I don't mind at all. You can't help being awesome.

Daniel Polansky really shines with his world building in Low Town. It's convincing, and we only get the information we need to understand what is happening right now. We are given a first taste of the history of the city and of the factions involved in the city politics. I'm sure Daniel Polansky has a lot more planned for the next book.

He manages to get the atmosphere of Low Town just right. It is one of those books which almost play like a movie while you read it. The surroundings and the action sucks you right into the book, which is exactly what I'm looking for in a book. I could feel the cold from the bad weather and hear my blood thundering in my ears while they were scrapping.

Warden is a complicated character with a lot of depth to him if you look beyond the cliches that surround him. He might be a hard ass and a drug dealer, but violence is a last resort. You can say he is a little bit stereotypical as he, like many other reluctant heroes, struggles with the social bit. Every time he talks to a friend he pushes them further away. There is a softer side to the man who at first appears to be all hard edges. Early in the book he forms a reluctant friendship with one of the many urchins, a boy named Wren, living on the streets. He takes him in as an apprentice, and tries to straighten him out. To start with Warden is a bit of a mystery. We don't really know much about him, which immediately makes him interesting. Daniel Polansky very effectively uses flashbacks to fill in some of the gaps, but again I'm sure there will be more revelations in the coming books.

The Straight Razor Cure is a interesting genre crossover of fantasy and hard boiled crime. I bet a lot of detectives out there wish they had the possibility of having a divination to help them solve a murder. This could obviously make for a very quickly solved murder and a short book. But like in real life, a criminal can still cover his tracks. It's a clever plot that moves along smoothly, but I feel Warden could have been less reliant on his contacts to make him slightly less passive. This is a very minor criticism, but he did seem to wait around a lot for people getting back to him instead of going forth to do righteous ass-kicking.

I'm left with a very good feeling after reading Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure. It's very similar to what I felt after reading my first Joe Abercrombie and Brian Ruckley books. Daniel Polansky is now one of the writers whose books I will buy automatically.  The Straight Razor Cure is gorgeously dark and gritty, with a protagonist with just the right mixture of brooding and mystery to him. Add the ability to take on three armed men unarmed, and we have all we need for an action packed book.

Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure weighs in at 356 pages and is published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

Recommendation: read