|TOMORROW, THE KILLING (LOW TOWN 2)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
Earlier this year, I read, reviewed and fairly raved about Daniel Polansky’s debut novel, The Straight Razor Cure. Picking up three years after the events of that first book, Polansky’s second novel – and the second volume of the Low Town series – takes us back to Low Town, this time around in the grip of an unbearable heat wave. (The) Warden finds himself for the first time in over a decade in the home of General Edwin Montgomery. The general’s daughter, the headstrong Rhaine, has abandoned the family home and moved to Low Town in an attempt to find out what happened to her brother, the infamous Roland, whose death, she is convinced, was not the suicide that it appeared to be. Warden has a history with Roland, having served under him during the Dren War; it’s a history of respect and friendship, but there is also a darker side to the relationship, forged when their paths – and political ideologies – diverged following the end of the war. Driven by a sense of debt to the family, Warden locates the girl, and soon finds himself playing with a political time bomb that could explode at any moment.
All of the elements that made The Straight Razor Cure are once more in evidence here: the political, religious, racial hotpot that is Low Town and the gritty feel that makes it feel more real that many fantasy settings; the genre-bending plotline that makes this neither fantasy nor mystery, but some clever combination of the two; and Warden himself, in whose voice we hear the story. There are, of course, plenty of new characters around which Polansky has constructed his story; what’s unexpected, though, is the evolution of the city and the world – there are new areas in Low Town that we’ve never visited before, new organisations and gangs that we have never met. In choosing to introduce us to the place in bite-sized chunks, Polansky makes the place feel fluid, and ensures that the setting is unlikely to feel stale or uninteresting at any point in the near future.
Unlike The Straight Razor Cure, which takes a mostly linear approach to storytelling, Tomorrow, The Killing takes a slightly different approach. The narrative jumps around, sometimes recounting the events of here and now, sometimes events that occurred during the Dren War, and sometimes events that took place between the end of the war and the death of Roland Montgomery. The flashbacks serve to show us a new side of Warden while, at the same time, filling in some of the blanks in the history of this fascinating place. The trench war against the Dren has a First World War feeling to it, while the setup of the Veterans’ Association shows that the Crown and Black House are not as all-powerful as they might have appeared; there is a powerful political opposition force in place, and this provides the basis for the thrust of the story.
With an element of the 1996 Bruce Willis film, Last Man Standing (itself a remake of Akiro Kurosawa’s Yojimbo), we find Warden in the centre of a potential gang war and uprising. Pitting one side against the other, and using minor gangs to sow the seeds of distrust, awakening old enmities, Warden’s aim is no less than the downfall of one side or the other, all in the pursuit of the truth behind the death of Roland Montgomery. Warden has a credible “in” with both sides (Montgomery’s friend and a veteran himself, his approach to the Veterans’ Association is seen as a natural step, while his conversations with Black House are inevitable considering his history there) which gives the entire story a firm foundation and keeps things well inside the realms of possibility (all things considered). Polansky takes his time getting all the pieces into place, which makes the payoff all the more worthwhile.
There are a couple of niggles in continuity (like the fact that Warden is now often referred to as “The Warden”), but nothing major, and most explained away by the shifting nature of the world that Polansky is effectively constructing “on the fly”, adding places or historical events as and when they are needed. There is nothing here to detract from the story. Tomorrow, The Killing is, to a certain degree, a standalone novel – the Low Town novels are not part of a traditional fantasy series, but rather a series of stories held together by location and character. While chronological reading would be advised, there’s no reason Tomorrow, The Killing isn’t a good place to jump in for new readers. Polansky set the bar extremely high with his first novel, so it’s difficult to pick this one up with anything other than lowered expectations. This book is a slightly different beast and, while it’s not quite as strong as its predecessor, it does bring enough to the table to make it a worthy successor and, most importantly, a worthwhile read.
With the same mix of fantasy and noir, and the added ingredient of playing one powerful side off against another, Tomorrow, The Killing succeeds in presenting a complete and engaging story while keeping the Low Town series on track as one of the best fantasy and/or crime series currently on the market. I, personally, am pleased to see the fantasy-lite cover gone, replaced by something a bit darker that will fit well in any section of a bookshop. Far from sophomore slump, Polansky builds on the success of his first novel, continuing the world-building as he goes: new areas of town, new characters, new political forces and histories, all of which combine to keep the reader interested in what’s going on, and wishing for more once it’s all over. Tomorrow, The Killing reads well as a standalone fantasy-crime-thriller, but readers who start with The Straight Razor Cure will, inevitably, come through with a much more rounded experience. Overall, it’s one not to be missed, regardless of your genre preferences.
|Name: MYKE COLE
Author of: CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS 1) (2012)
On the web: mykecole.com
On Twitter: @MykeCole
I’m very pleased to introduce our first guest post here at Reader Dad. Myke Cole, author of Control Point, the first book in the Shadow Ops series, has very kindly written an essay about the origins of the Shadow Ops world. So, without further ado, I’ll let him get on with it.
SHADOW OPS is definitely a military story. But I’ve also written satire. I’ve written high fantasy, I’ve written horror, I’ve written straight science fiction. Heck, I even wrote a zombie love story. But when people talk about my fiction, it’s always Myke Cole the MILITARY writer. People seem to think I’m a one-trick-pony.
I’m a two-trick-pony.
Those two tricks form the basis of the SHADOW OPS series and, when you think about it, makes my writing it almost inevitable. The tricks are: 1.) A deep and abiding love of all things military. 2.) A traditional nerd upbringing (raised on Dungeons & Dragons, comic books and fantasy novels).
It began with a suit of armor.
My mother took me to the Metropolitan Museum when I was a kid, and from the first sight of that armor, I knew that I wanted to be a knight when I grew up (and not the Judy Dench/Paul McCartney kind. The Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar kind).
I was absolutely undeterred by her explanation that knighthood was an occupation in . . . decline . . . in the 21st century. I knew they were warriors, and so I embraced every text I could find on the fighting man, and trained myself in the arena of imagination provided by role-playing games. Always the Paladin or Fighter, I waded into the thick of things, sword in hand, usually getting killed in the first round of combat. I devoured every story I could find about knights, from the classic legends of Sir Thomas Mallory to the modern reimaginings of Terry Brooks.
You’d think that as I grew up I’d realize mom was right.
But she wasn’t.
Real fighting knighthood never truly died. It evolved into a nearly unrecognizable shape as the heart of the modern military officer corps. I still clung to my fantasy imaginings of knights, from Aragorn to Galahad to Ned Stark, but now they were informed by an older man’s familiarity with the realities of evolved technology, military bureaucracy and the blurring (at least on the surface) of class distinctions we have in the modern world.
Years later, when I first girded on my officer’s saber, the little boy in me sang. I was as much of a knight as I could ever be, true to both the modern evolution of the profession and the fantasy underpinnings that wouldn’t let me stop dreaming about it. That whole saluting thing? We’re miming raising a medieval helmet-visor, folks.
Writing SHADOW OPS felt the same way. It was . . . right, somehow. A story about military sorcerers? That’s as me as it gets. It was like coming home.
I like to think of myself as a complex guy, especially in my writing. But “military” writer? Sure. I’ll take it.
|CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS: Book One)
Myke Cole (mykecole.com)
In the aftermath of the Great Reawakening, the world is a different place. Magic has returned, and people across the globe are turning up Latent, Manifesting in any one of a handful of schools of magic. Those who Manifest in the legal schools (Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, Aeromancy, Physiomancy) have the option of joining the Supernatural Operations Corps, and using their newfound skills for the good of mankind. Those who run – Selfers – are considered dangerous criminals, and eliminated accordingly. Those who Manifest in one of the Prohibited schools – Probes – don’t have the same luxury; their skills are much more rare, but much more dangerous, and they are dealt with quickly. Lieutenant Oscar Britton is a Marine helicopter pilot assigned to a team whose job is to provide support to SOC when dealing with Selfers or Probes; he’s well aware of the consequences, so when he Manifests in one of the Prohibited schools – Oscar has the ability to open doors to another dimension – he runs. Hunted down and captured, he discovers that the rumours of a secret training base are true: Oscar finds himself enrolled as a contractor and dropped into the middle of a secret war in a different world.
Myke Cole sets the tone of Control Point – his first novel, and the start of his Shadow Ops series – very early on. The action starts almost from the first page, and the story progresses through a series of action-packed – and, often, breath-taking – set-pieces to an arbitrary point that acts as the end of the book (think of the final sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, which is less an ending, and more a quick breath between two action-packed chapters of a larger story). When we first meet Oscar Britton, he is flying into action as part of a team tasked with bringing down a pair of Selfers. Britton is a career army man, but the actions of the SOC and the necessity of their mission – namely the murder of two teenagers – play on his conscience and he finds himself questioning his loyalties. This is a theme that runs throughout the book and, while some of his interior monologue comes across as decidedly whiny, it gives the reader a reason to root for Oscar – he’s a man of principles, the man we hope we would be, should we find ourselves in the same situation.
Unusually for this type of fast-paced action story, Control Point comes with a vast amount of backstory, drip-fed to the reader through chapter headers and conversations between characters. It’s here that we learn about the disaster at the Lincoln Memorial that led to the current controls on magic, about the Native American insurgency that forms a background to much of the story and about the different schools of magic, and the controls enforced on them. On top of this backstory, Cole has created an alternate dimension – the Source – and a race of beings – the Goblins – that inhabit it, and it is here that much of the novel’s action takes place. The marriage of magic and state-of-the-art military technology works well, and adds a layer of realism that might otherwise have been missing. As with Marvel’s X-Men or Samit Basu’s Turbulence, Cole also examines the relationship between these new magical post-humans and the rest of the human race, and we find similar themes coming through: distrust, fear, power-hunger.
Control Point is what it is: a scene-setter, the first part of a much larger work that promises to be the very best of military fantasy. As Oscar completes his training, we move from one fight scenario to another, each one designed to show not only what Oscar is capable of, but also the capabilities of his colleagues and his enemies. At times it feels slightly disjointed, like these are individual short stories whose only common denominator is the characters that populate them, but it is the most effective way to show us what we need to know for the coming instalments of the series. “Show, don’t tell” is advice often given to writers, and Cole does just that, giving us everything we need without slowing the pace or interrupting the flow of the story.
Smart, funny and packed to the endpapers with action, Control Point is a fast, fun read that sets up what promises to be an exciting new series. Myke Cole has written a first novel that finds the perfect balance between action and story, and filled it with characters compelling enough to make us want to learn more about them. The ending-that-isn’t is the perfect stopping point, and the perfect ploy: there is more to come, and anyone who has read this far is unlikely to want to miss it. A blend of military, fantasy and science fiction, Control Point and the Shadow Ops series will have broad appeal, making Myke Cole one to watch.
|THE STRAIGHT RAZOR CURE (LOW TOWN 1)
Daniel Polansky (www.danielpolansky.com)
Warden is a drug dealer and hard man on the streets of Low Town. Ex-soldier, ex-lawman, it is only his past that keeps him above suspicion when he stumbles upon the body of a young girl. When a second body is found, Warden receives an offer he can’t refuse from his old boss: solve the crime in seven days, or die a slow and painful death at the hands of the Questioners. As the body count rises and time moves inexorably forward, Warden finds himself in the middle of something best left alone: inhuman creatures, last glimpsed over a decade ago on the battlefield, are roaming the streets of Low Town, and the long-banished plague looks set to return. But the truth of the matter is this: Warden is the only man in Low Town who can find the perpetrator and stop the wave of destruction.
You might be excused for thinking The Straight Razor Cure is just another fantasy clone, or an Assassin’s Creed-style video game adaptation. The fantasy-lite cover does nothing to dispel this notion, and while the blurb is slightly more helpful, it’s still not perfect. It took me awhile to pick this one up off the shelf, but within a handful of pages, I was more than well aware that this was something new and fresh – quite possibly the newest, freshest fantasy novel since Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. It is, in short, the bastard son of George R. R. Martin and Raymond Chandler, an unusual combination of hard-boiled crime novel in a fantasy world setting.
Daniel Polansky’s first novel – and the first novel in a series set in Low Town – takes no time getting down to business. World-building happens as the plot moves forward, and we find our way through this strange city – and learn of its history – as we follow Warden on his rounds. This is a world where magic has the upper hand in the battle with science, but Low Town comes with a better “finish” than some traditional fantasy settings. There’s a gritty urban feel here, with office blocks standing shoulder-to-shoulder with taverns and restaurants; a rich part of town where the gentry maintain mansions, and the seedier parts where anything goes. Change the names and the technology, and this could be Chandler’s 1940s Los Angeles.
With the city comes a complex society, divisions by race, religion, wealth. Order is maintained by the city guard, while the Agents of the Crown rule with an iron fist from Black House. Warden moves through the city with ease, equally confident with rich and poor, with sorcerer or guardsman. His past, though, leaves him with a healthy fear of Black House and his relationship with the Crown is one of the many intrigues that make us want to follow this character in order to get to know him better. In Warden, Polansky has created the perfect antihero – a man with enough good qualities to make it okay for us to like him, and enough bad qualities to make him interesting.
The blend of fantasy and hard-boiled detective is an interesting choice and it works surprisingly well. Polansky is obviously well-versed in both genres and uses the different styles to their best advantage: the basic building blocks of this world drawn from the domain of Tolkien or Martin, while the characterisation, the crimes themselves, the snappy dialogue and the noirish feel are drawn from an entirely different time and place: the works of Chandler and Hammett, Jim Thompson and possibly even James Ellroy have a heavy influence here. Throw in a soupçon of the supernatural, and you’re left with a novel that does not so much straddle the genre lines as obliterate them completely, producing something wonderfully original that takes the reader completely by surprise.
‘Let’s see now – there was Tara, and the Kiren you paid to kidnap her. And Carastiona, and Avraham. We’ve already mentioned my old partner. And upstairs the Master took the straight razor cure rather than face what you’ve become – though I’m not sure suicide adds to your tally.’
Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure is an excellent start to what is sure to be a dark, gritty, but most of all exciting, series. Daniel Polansky has created something fresh and intriguing that should appeal to fans of fantasy and crime fiction alike. It’s an assured and accomplished debut that bears strong promise of more to come. For me, the only problem with this book is the sales pitch: it needs a strong cover, something less “generic fantasy”, and more emphasis on the crime angle. That aside, this is a surprising little gem from a talented author who, hopefully, has plenty more to offer.