I hadn’t heard of Daniel Polansky until recently, which is a shame. In a recent Reddit AMA he cited his influences as Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges and Raymond Chandler, and that pretty much hooked me. Of course he was pimping his new epic fantasy, Those Above, which is not available in the states yet. So I’ll be waiting on that one.
Fortunately he has another trilogy that is “new to me”, so I immediately tracked down his debut, Low Town. And suffice to say, my excitement was immediately sated by this noir fantasy.
Low Town follows The Warden— Army vet, former secret policeman and current crime boss in Low Town, a squalid industrial slum reminiscent of Dickensian London. Rescued from a life on the streets by The Crane, a powerful mage who used his powers to protect Low Town from a deadly plague, The Warden was raised with Celia, an orphan girl he rescued from rape, who turned out to have a knack for magic. He left the Crane and Celia to join the Army, while Celia entered an apprenticeship to develop her magical talents, aiming to succeed the Crane as protector of Low Town.
As the novel begins, The Warden is drawn into investigating the disappearance of a local girl. Haunted by memories of his own life and perhaps triggered by his rescue Celia, he takes the case personally, and seeks to discover the perp. When he chances upon a magical monstrosity akin to one he encountered during the war, he turns to the Crane and Celia, as well as his former police partner to help with the case.
The Warden is a classic hard-boiled anti-hero, a drug-dealing (and drug abusing) Mike Hammer or Sam Spade, haunted by the ghosts of his past and caught up in a magical conspiracy reaching into the upper echelons of government. He’s brutal, he’s an unequivocal killer but he has a soft spot for the helpless despite his cynical view of humanity.
Yep, hard-boiled noir with magic. This is fucking cool.
Noir and magic isn’t that unusual, Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” takes the hard-boiled private dick and places him in an urban fantasy setting replete with vamps, wizards and talking skulls. But Polansky’s setting is closer to Gaslamp fantasy, and magic, while a central component of the story, is much further in the background.
It also got me thinking about the similarities grimdark (which Low Town has been called) and noir. Gritty realism, morally ambiguous characters, violent anti-heroes and bleak endings. Are they two facets of the same style? And if so, why is one so maligned while the other is a cornerstone of the mystery genre?
Now, with the noir comes all the tropes. Anyone who has read any Chandler or seen any Bogart flicks should see the ending coming, and the Eastern-inspired Kiren are straight out of a Fu Manchu story. From the mysterious leader Ling Chi to his opium dens where one mage smokes himself into a stupor, destroyed by the guilt of his work on a secret military project, this is familiar territory.
But that’s what makes it so comfortable.