|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.