Drug dealers, hustlers, brothels, dirty politics, corrupt cops…and sorcery. Welcome to Low Town.
—copy from the back of Low Town by Daniel Polansky
Well, somebody else has gone and done it: written a fantasy crime novel.
I doubt Daniel Polansky is the first. After all, there is the Thieves’ World series of shared-word anthologies, and I’m sure there are others I’m not aware of. No one can read everything that’s out there in the fantasy genre, and who would want to? Let’s face it: some of it’s not worth reading. I can’t speak for Thieves’ Word, as I’ve never been big on reading anthologies, and shared-world ones are even less appealing. I think the most valiant effort I ever tried was in reading the first four or so of George R.R. Martin’s Aces High series, where there’s an alternate earth populated by superheroes.
I say someone else has gone and done it because, off and on since writing Pipeline, I’ve given thought to writing a sf crime novel. It wouldn’t be the first, either. Asimov wrote a sf mystery by the name of Caves of Steel way back in the 40s or so, after someone told him there was no way to write a sf mystery because technology would solve crimes all but instantly. And, since mysteries primarily concern themselves with murder, that’s the crime that would solve the easiest. Naturally, Asimov being the type he was, he couldn’t let a challenge like that pass.
But I haven’t been able to come up with anything good. My first thought was to do, basically, Miami Vice 2280 or something like that. You know, the old buddy cop story, and make ’em vice cops so we could get off into the drug trade that I find so fascinating. But, let’s face it: that’s kinda hokey. My first problem with the story—how do you smuggle something in space?—was easily answered, at least in a speculative setting. Some people argue that galactic war a la Star Wars would never work because of the distances and traveling times involved. I’m sure that keeps George Lucas awake nights—as he counts all that money.
Never let the fact get in the way of a good story.
As for a fantasy crime novel, I guess growing up reading Tolkienesque fantasies colored my imagination. I could see a thief—they’re as common as elves, or almost. That wasn’t a problem. My problem was, just how interesting could you make a thief’s story? It wouldn’t take very many second-story jobs for both writer and reader to be bored.
The bottom line: I let my imagination stall out. And Polansky’s book showed me what I’ve been missing.
This ain’t high fantasy, folks.
Low Town is just what it says: the low end of Rigus, which the book bills as the finest city of the Thirteen Lands. Low Town contains the slum. It’s where the nobility goes—for its sexual escapades, and for its drugs.
That’s where the protagonist for Low Town comes in: he’s a drug dealer, and he runs a lot of Low Town. He has about half the Low Town guard on his payroll. He’s called the Warden. He knows all the pimps, and he’s even hobnobbed a bit with some nobility. But don’t hold that against him. They pay well for their pixie breath, after all. And their wyrm.
The problem is, a young girl is missing, and it has Low Town concerned. It’s not that they care, exactly. After all, a young, unblemished girl will bring five hundred ochres on the slave markets. There’s the profit margin to consider. Besides, everybody likes kids. Right?
Well, that’s not the Warden’s problem—until he stumbles across her body late one day as he’s finishing up his rounds. He’s supposed to go watch a performance by his friend Yancey the Rhymer, but once he finds the girl, he knows that’ll have to wait, even if Yancey is his ticket to nobility and their money.
See, the girl is mutilated and covered in blood.
The Warden corrals a couple of street urchins and sends the dumber one after the guard. The smarter one he hands an argent and his stash of remaining drugs. The guard is pretty much worthless when it comes to investigating crimes, and everyone knows it. That means they’ll have to send for an agent from the Black House—the empire’s secret police. Think of them as a mix of FBI, CIA and KGB—with a dash of the Spanish Inquisition thrown in for variety. When the guard walks by, everybody ignores them. When the Throne’s Justice walks by, everybody lowers their heads and makes room. And answers right up if asked a question.
The Warden doesn’t exactly look forward to being interviewed by someone from Black House. Not because he fears them, exactly, but because he used to be an agent, and he fell from grace while he was part of Special Operations—they’re the Spanish Inquisition part I mentioned earlier. There’s this unmarked door that leads underground, and it’s not a door you want to go through.
Thankfully, the man who shows up is Crispin, an old friend named from his days there, and the interview goes all right. But the Warden takes the murder as a personal affront—he’s Low Town’s guardian, after all. He tracks down the killer thanks to a peculiar alchemical smell and, just as he’s about the kill the guy, this…thing shows up, something evil from the void, and the way it kills the murderer isn’t pretty.
When the Warden wakes up, he’s surrounded by agents from Black House, and they’re well on their way to beating him senseless. Crispin arrives on the scene and rescues him, but it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire as his old friend takes him to Black House, where he learns that the brass is calling it a closed case: the Kiren killed the girl, the Warden tracked the Kiren down and witnessed him being murdered by a person or persons unknown, and that’s that. Apparently Black House doesn’t want to touch something that reeks of this particular brand of magic.
Why? Because, during a war ten years ago, the government used sorcerers to call just these kinds of beings against their enemies. Most of those sorcerers died that night, but not all.
It’s after this that things get really convoluted, but in a good way. The Warden has to untie this increasingly complex knot of intrigue and magic as children continue to disappear.
Polansky manages to write what is basically a fantasy/mystery/crime novel, and he juggles all the parts well. We get to see a gritty world—don’t go into this one expecting Lothlorien or any other place in Middle-earth—except perhaps for Mordor. There’s mud and worse in the gutters, even the good guys cheat when they fight wars, and the Warden is just the kind of anti-hero who can move through this world and present it to us in an interesting way. He knows a lot about it, and not a lot of it is good.
But the story is. It keeps you going. Polansky maintains the tension without wearing you out, making you want to read “just one more chapter.” I put that in quotes ’cause I ain’t the only one who’s ever said it while reading a good book. And Polansky pays you back for your undivided attention by keeping the true solution to the mystery, um, well, mysterious until the last possible moment. And then he hits you broadside with it.
Low Town. Go find it and read it. If you like fantasy, mystery or crime, you’ll be satisfied with this one. I’m looking forward to the next one from Polansky and the Warden.