LOW TOWN (Low Town #1), by Daniel Polansky

Grimdark fantasy requires a anti-hero at its core, and in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town this role is fulfilled by Warden, the de facto ruler of the worst part of the city of Rigus, the titular Low Town: Warden is a drug dealer (and user), a crime lord and violent enforcer, someone who often pays the corruptible officials to look the other way. On the surface, there would be little to no appeal in such such a character, but the way Polansky paints him, giving the readers access to his inner thoughts through first-person narrative, changes our perspective soon enough.

Warden’s life was never an easy one: orphaned at a tender age when the Great Plague decimated the population of Rigus, he quickly learned to fend for himself acquiring street wisdom and cunning, and once he was old enough he enlisted in the army where he distinguished himself in war. On his return to civilian life he became a law enforcer, once again leaving his mark in the feared secret police branch of Black House, but something happened that made him quit and return to his old turf, where he became the man he is today: ruthless, cynical and with self-destructive tendencies.  As the story starts, however, we see a different side of Warden as Low Town is plagued by the disappearance of a number of children, whose desecrated bodies are later found, to the horror of the community: set on finding the perpetrators of these hideous acts, Warden sets on a personal crusade that will take him into contact with the seediest corners of the city as well as the higher spheres of society, in a journey peppered with false starts and red herrings, and also touched by this world’s peculiar kind of magic.

The story’s background is depicted quite vividly through Warden’s movements across the city: dirty, chaotic, dangerous, and yet quite alive in its noir vibe that is one of the compelling elements of the novel; it’s the perfect breeding ground for drug dealers and violent gangs, and this widespread corruption is not limited to the slums, because the higher-ups are just as bad as the people they rule upon, making this city a place where survival requires strength and viciousness – or, to quote Warden’s own words:

It’s a cold world. I’ve adjusted to the temperature.

And yet, despite his cynicism and the brutality he employs against rivals and people who cross his path, Warden does have some redeeming qualities which show, more than through his actions or his thoughts, through the kind of company he keeps when he’s not fulfilling his role as crime lord: Alphonsus and his wife, who manage the Staggering Earl, the pub that is Warden’s home and refuge, and who both look after him with a kind of disconsolate acceptance of the man’s dangerous life-style; the Crane, the elderly, ailing magician who used to be his point of reference in his days as a street-wise dweller; Wren, the savvy urchin he takes on as an apprentice and deals with through a form of tough love that speaks louder than any words.

Given this premise, it’s not surprising to see Warden launch himself in the hunt for the monster who is abducting and killing children in Low Town, in a quest that reminded me of the lonely adventures of the private detectives that noir literature made us familiar with: and indeed Rigus and the enclave of Low Town don’t feel that different – despite the medieval-like background – from any description of New York or Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s where those crime thrillers were set.   And like those modern detectives, Warden often risks his life and is assaulted and viciously beaten by people who don’t appreciate his nosy attitude or more simply see the opportunity of settling old scores.  It’s in these circumstances – like a breathtaking chase through the alleys and canals of the city – that Warden’s gritty determination shines through, together with the desire to do justice for those young, innocent victims who have no one to speak for them: though unexpressed, the reasoning for such persistence is clear, since he must see himself reflected in them, just as he sees something of himself in young Wren.  And that’s the main redeeming quality for this character, who might appear despicable at a superficial glance, but who ends up showing a good heart and something approaching a conscience, despite the constant, cynical denial that does not manage to completely mask what’s underneath.

My “graduation” from Daniel Polansky’s short fiction to this full-length novel proved to be a very immersive, quite compelling journey and the discovery of a character who might not make it easy to relate to him, but still is too intriguing to simply dismiss as a “crusty bad guy”. There are many untraveled areas in his past and in his psychological makeup that I’m certain will make for some interesting exploration in the next novels of the series. Hopefully, I will be able to return to the fascinating seediness of Low Town soon…

My Rating:


THE COURT OF BROKEN KNIVES (Empires of Dust #1), by Anna Smith Spark

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

As far as I know, grimdark has until now been the province of male writers – that is, until Anna Smith Spark penned this amazing debut novel.  It was a delightfully weird read, mostly because the harshness of plot, landscape and characters is delivered with such elegant writing that creates an incredible contrast and carries this story forward with remarkable strength.  Where novels are defined as being either plot- or character-driven, The Court of Broken Knives is both, although the story itself appears less important than the characters inhabiting it, as they move across an unforgiving land that seems bent on destroying life just as much as weapon-wielding people do.

The main focal point of the novel is the city of Sorlost, the center of the Sekemleth Empire: once a powerful political entity, the empire seems headed toward its unavoidable decay. To stop the decline and try to counteract the advance of neighboring lesser states bent on expansion, lord Orhan, a high-placed nobleman of the empire, concocts a coup that will wipe out the emperor and his whole court, allowing Orhan to start afresh and restore some of the former glory and power. Enter Tobias, the leader of the mercenary band employed by Orhan to carry out his plan: probably my favorite character, he’s a level-headed, practical man gifted with a sort of skewed integrity and determination that quickly endeared him to me. The most bizarre element in his band is young Marith, the latest recruit, a boy possessed of an almost otherworldly beauty and manners that speak of a higher station in life: once Marith single-handedly slays a dragon (yes, a dragon!) that was happily wreaking havoc in the mercenaries’ camp, something seems to free him of any self-imposed restraints he might have been working under, and he starts to change, revealing a ruthless, murderous nature fueled both by his bloody ancestry and the drug addiction that destroyed his former life and led him away from his past.   Last but not least among the main characters is Thalia, high priestess of Sorlost’s god of life and death – a god who requires human sacrifices to be performed daily, and whose celebrant is destined to be killed by her successor, just like she did when her turn came.

The overall mood of the novel is one of extreme pessimism: Orhan dreams of changing the power balance in the empire, but is also aware of the unavoidable decline of his world, one that still decks itself in silks and jewels but is quite rotten underneath.  At times I thought that his desire for social and political change came from the extreme dissatisfaction for his own life: married to a woman he does not love, yearning to be with the man that was his soul mate since their youth, Orhan finds himself trapped in the command role he sought and obtained through terrible bloodshed, and realizes that he’s now at risk just as much as his predecessor was, if not more considering the spreading unrest.

Thalia is a deeply damaged soul unable to realize how much that damage has spread: forced into the role of high priestess of a blood-thirsty god whose preferred sacrifice are children, she seems to have adapted to her temple prison and to the prospect of falling under the knife of her already-designated successor, unaware of the vastness of the outside world and its wonders (and perils), yet when the opportunity arises to leave her gilded cage she takes it. I’ve often wondered, following her narrative arc, whether she didn’t fall from the proverbial frying pan to the fire, because her fascination with Marith sounds more like a journey through hell than an infatuation – I find it very hard to call it ‘love’….

As for Marith, he’s equally pitiable and loathsome: seeing his anguish at the effects of the drug that was forced on him and made him an incurable addict, made me pity him, especially since a few flashbacks hinted at a great personal tragedy that’s revealed at some point; but his way of denying the drug’s pull is to give himself over to a killing frenzy, reveling in blood and destruction in the name of the ancient god Amrath from whom he descends – and in whose name he’s able to draw others in that same unthinking paroxysm – so this revelation worked a great deal toward cooling my initial sympathy.  Still, he remains a fascinating character and I can’t wait to see where his path will lead him in the next books.

I find it quite difficult to delve deeper into this story without falling into a… spoiler trap, but what I can say freely is that The Court of Broken Knives surprised me at every turn, not only because of unexpected revelations or shocking turns, but more than anything because it feels like the work of a consummate writer and not a first novel: if this is what the author can offer as her debut, we must indeed keep an eye on her and her next works. In the book’s preface, there is a quote from Michael Fletcher, calling her “the queen of grim dark fantasy”: the title, and compliment, are more than deserved.  All hail the queen!


My Rating: