Friday, October 21, 2011

Take a Tour of Low Town

Longtime readers may recall that I like to cook sweet stuff. What they may not have realized is that I'm something of a hipster when it comes to the culinary arts. Forget traditional desserts. I'd rather bake a pear pie with a cheddar-rosemary crust or whip up a batch of malt-infused ice cream. The only problem with such highfalutin goodies lies in finding a recipe for them. Usually, I have to wing it, combining bits and bobs from various concoctions, using trial and error to cobble together a tasty comestible. It's satisfying when an effort actually works, just as it is when an author manages to combine disparate genre elements into a new sort of story. For example, consider how Daniel Polansky blends hardboiled and fantasy in his debut novel Low Town.

Once upon a time you could've called Warden somebody, back when he wore the gray as a member of the freeze, Rigus' elite investigative force. He came the position honestly enough, distinguishing himself in the long war between the kingdom and the Dren, mainly by killing men and surviving to speak of it. Of course, that was a long time ago, and since then Warden has fallen hard and fast. Foul-mouthed and hard-living, he spends his days selling and sampling all sorts of controlled substances. On the surface, he looks like any other petty criminal skulking the streets of Low Town, that pimple on Rigus' pretty face. But Warden still possesses some ambition. Through conniving and plain brute force, he has consolidated much of the area's less-than-legal commerce, claiming it as his own. If you want to find a pimp or pusher, you talk to Warden. Soon, though, he'll need every one of those sketchy contacts. Seems small children have started disappearing, and that's an outrage Warren simply won't stomach, not in his town ...

Unlike many fantasy scribes, Polansky really and truly understands the grittiness of hardboiled. Unlike many crime writers, he comprehends the appeal of magical and mysterious fantasy tropes. The best part of Low Town lies in watching him weave the two styles together chapter after chapter, braiding them into a story simultaneously hard-edged and exotic. He even throws in a bit of Lovecraftian horror in a couple places, although to explain it more would ruin some of the plot. Not that everything's peachy in Polansky's ghetto. Warden's incessant -- and I do mean incessant -- fondness for drugs and obscenities will rub straight-edge types the wrong way, and the ending comes a bit out of left field. But if you enjoy watching an author pull off a tricky bit of compositional alchemy, you should take a tour of Low Town.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Gianmaria Veronese; Hat Tip:


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Sounds fun. I'll try to keep an eye out for it.

Btw, I finally got my hands on Finch (in a used bookstore, unfortunately; I try to support authors I love, but sometimes that's only by recommending them to friends.)

The question is, ought I to read City of Saints and Madmen first? I won't be reading either for a while, as I'm ploughing through George R.R. Martin's *spectacular* Song of Ice and Fire series, but I want to make sure that I don't end up spoiling City by skipping to Finch.

Loren Eaton said...

Reading Finch before City of Saints and Madmen or Shriek: An Afterword is kind of like reading The Lord of the Rings before The Silmarillion: You'll miss out on a lot of the secondary world's texture, but the basic action should be comprehensible.

I'm tempted to start Martin, but 1) I'm afraid he'll die before he finishes the series; and 2) I'm worried that I'm not hard-hearted enough to watch him kill off all those characters.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

In my experience, the depressing-ness of Martin is overstated.

The more I read, the more I realize that it's not that he kills his characters so much more than other authors, but that death (1) matters (i.e. when someone dies, you do feel it), and (2) happens because of realistic in-world reasons, not because of narrative fitting-ness.

That is, people can die because they did something stupid (but highly in character) in an unforgiving world. In most fantasy, people die because they are making noble self-sacrifice, or they have gone mad from despair, or they are parents of a hero. (From Luke Skywalker on, it seems really unhealthy to raise a hero. Authors just kill said parents with unbelievable consistency.)

The difference does make for some heartbreak, yes. But the focus, for me, is on the characters who survive. It is miraculous how much more vivid an adventure story becomes when one feels that characters are in a world with real consequences for their actions, rather than having a story that caters to the adventurer's journey.

George R.R. Martin's characters feel more honorable than Tolkien precisely because you know their honor will *not* be rewarded, will be punished, and probably will result in people slandering them, but they do the right thing anyway. Death in Martin shocks because it isn't just, or glowingly sacrificial, or incredibly heroic. It's just death--it's the actions that lead to it that matters. So a lot of his reputation comes from this suddenness--it's not like lovable characters are being offed right and left, it's just that when they do die, there isn't a lot of ceremony about it.

Loren Eaton said...

Well, I'm definitely going to have to read the first book in the series. Everything I hear indicates that it's hugely important for fantasy fans. I'll let you know what I think when I finish it!