Forget It, Reader, It's Low Town

by Arthur B

Daniel Polansky's The Straight Razor Cure is his first novel. And hopefully his last.
Dan and Kyra and I had some time to kill before we went to see Prometheus the other week, and since it was in the vicinity of my birthday I had a £60 Waterstones (no apostrophe) voucher to spend, so we poked around their SF/fantasy section and I picked out stuff whilst Dan and Kyra made suggestions. As it panned out, the spend was split between stuff I would almost have certainly bought anyway (Warhams stuff) and taking a chance with authors I'm not familiar with, the most expensive item being Daniel Polansky's The Straight Razor Cure, which was drawn to my attention mainly through Dan and Kyra being shocked by how shitty it looked. Cheap, lazy cover featuring a wizardy person with their face concealed? Check. Blurb about how it's a dark and edgy story about grimdark happenings in a fantasy city? Check. Optimistic attempt to pitch this as the first volume in a series? Check. The odds of this book just plain failing were good. So of course I bought it and tried to read it because I like shouting at lousy books for your entertainment.

Our story revolves around Warden, a war veteran and former Agent of the Crown (a sort of detective/spy/hitman by royal appointment) who got thrown out of the job due to some misdeed which is hinted at early on and which I guess is unveiled over the course of the novel. To make ends meet, Warden has become a drug dealer, and has more or less single-handedly taken control of an area of Low Town, where the poor people live, as his personal criminal fief. Of course, he's breaking the rules according to Scarface by getting high off his own supply - his addiction to "pixie's breath", which sounds more like it ought to be some sort of equivalent to magic mushrooms or weed or acid as opposed to the potent stimulant it appears to be, means he can exert the incredible levels of violence necessary to put competitors in their place without feeling the injuries they inflict on him until the fight is over.

When Warden discovers the mutilated body of Little Tara, a Low Town child whose kidnapping has had the district tense and nervous for days, he finds himself drawn into the investigation despite his better judgement - not as a suspect (his former colleagues in the Crown's service may not be thrilled with his career choice but they have just enough affection for him to not throw around charges which wouldn't stick anyway), but as an investigator, chasing up the leads the Agents are unable or unwilling to pursue. To do that, Warden has to swallow his pride and seek the aid of the Blue Crane, a beloved magician who acts as a sort of protector and patron of Low Town, and Celia, the Crane's apprentice who had some sort of emotional entanglement with Warden back in the day.

So, what we are dealing with here is a grimy detective story replete with attempts at noirishness and set in a fantasy world. (The title of the book even turns up within the novel as a euphemism for death, which - especially given the way it's presented - seems to be a Chandler reference to me.) One of the more successful aspects of this whole deal is Polansky's knack for hitting a rough approximation of hardboiled prose. This isn't unique in fantasy - Steven Brust showed a knack for it with his Vlad Taltos stories - and I suppose an argument could be made that the motifs and style of hardboiled detective fiction are so distinctive that it really shouldn't be that hard to reverse-engineer the formula and use it yourself.

I don't agree - I think the whole Hammett/Chandler deal is the sort of thing which looks easy only because Dash and Ray were so good at what they did that they made it look easy. Writing in a hardboiled style isn't simply a matter of using the first person, adopting a jaded, world-weary tone, and referring to women as "dames". There's an air of verisimilitude that's necessary - the reader needs to believe that you are offering them a window into the murky world the detectives and criminals live in, a tawdry and glamourless world which is grim without crossing the line into grotesque. Hammett, of course, had the advantage that he really was a detective; Chandler was bluffing on the detective part but he was a genuine alcoholic so at least he had that part down. More to the point, both Hammett and Chandler are very readable and get you racing through their prose at a breakneck pace, and Polansky's got that down reasonably well.

Back to The Straight Razor Cure, the more interesting parts of the novel are the parts where Polansky has clearly thought through how Warden's grubby little trade works and what Warden does in his day to day life and how Warden keeps his competitors out of his turf and the authorities off his back. I also liked the way Warden's drug-enhanced super-elite fighting abilities allowed for mildly ridiculous violence on his part. Then again, that plot point also conveniently gets Polansky off the hook when it comes to cooking up a full complement of underlings for Warden, since thanks to his super drug powers he can operate without much in the way of goons or underlings beyond Wren, an urchin who convinces Warden to take him on as an errand boy, and Adolphus, Warden's old war buddy who's the co-owner of the inn Warden uses as his legitimate front. Warden's interactions with Adolphus are another feature of the book I liked, partly because Adolphus would occasionally call Warden out on his shit but mostly because they are a big contributor to the illustration of Warden's routine. Polansky's best accomplishment in the book is the quick and economical way he gives the reader a sense of the rhythm of Warden's life, which of course in turn lets the reader get a handle on how the Little Tara murder disrupts that.

Warden himself is much less interesting. I get the impression that Polansky would claim to be trying to present Warden as some sort of deeply flawed antihero, and he's certainly not wanting for flaws. The problem is that the flaws, either in execution or in the choice of the flaws themselves, ultimately serve to make Warden look cool. Yes, his drug addiction is clearly kind of running away with him and he's failing to acknowledge that he isn't really in control of it, but it's precisely that addiction which allows him to commit acts of one-man badassitude and walk away. (Well, limp away, but still.) Yes, he's clearly had a bumpy personal history, but all the cool antiheroes have tumultuous backplots these days. Yes, he's incredibly rude to people and tends to drive them away when they try to rekindle an emotional connection to him, but the brooding loner has been a fantasy fiction cliche for decades.

This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the tone of the novel suggested that it was just intended as a fun and mildly edgy adventure story with our smart-mouth supercool drug dealer as its central figure. The problem is that Polansky never quite seems to fully commit to that. Sometimes it seems we are meant to take Warden as being a super cool grimdark hero, sometimes he comes across as a genuinely broken human being on a slow downward spiral to an inevitable demise once his poor, ravaged body can no longer take the punishment. Sometimes Warden's criminal activity is seen as egregious (if stylised and coolified) thuggery, sometimes it's a matter of cunningly getting one over on the corrupt authorities, and sometimes it's him looking out for the safety of the good people of Low Town and making sure people's daughters didn't get hurt (in much the same way real life gangsters like the Kray twins tended to build up a Robin Hood mythology around themselves).

This isn't moral ambiguity, or moral complexity, or anything you could dignify with such terms, it's full-on moral incoherence. We are told that Warden is a brutally violent drug dealer whose product is depicted as being both highly addictive and severely bad for long-term users' health - for instance, one of his contacts is a customs agent who is addicted to pixie breath himself, and Warden reckons this agent doesn't have much longer to go in this life if he keeps his habit up. If we are meant to consider this as being a genuinely reprehensible thing, then the regular low-key glamourising of it feels out of place. If we are meant to consider it to be a cool and edgy dimension to the character which should be taken with the same pinch of salt we apply to any gangster-as-hero story, then the occasional reference to it fucking up people's lives and slowly consuming his own would seem to harsh that particular buzz. If it's meant to be a complicated situation then the signals we should be getting should themselves occasionally be complicated, rather than the simple (but contradictory) messages of "drugs are poison and Warden is a violent thug who is slowly killing himself" and "drugs are exotic and Warden is a total badass with a dark side to him".

This incoherence extends to Polansky's worldbuilding and the overall tone of the novel. The first sentence of the novel ("In the opening days of the Great War, on the battlefields of Apres and Ives, I acquired the ability to abandon slumber with the flutter of an eyelid") specifies to us that Warden used to be in a war, and the references to trenches and commandos and the name-dropping of names which sound a little bit like World War I battlefields and the fact that it's called the Great War seems to be a fairly clear indication that the war in question is meant to be a Great War analogue. Fine, that makes sense - having your grimy detective story take place in your fantasy world's equivalent to the 1920s or 1930s is a perfectly logical choice, one good way to establish that this is where it's set is to have your characters fight in World War I's local iteration ten years earlier. Fine.

The problem I have is that Polansky doesn't commit to Low Town existing in the 1920s and 1930s. People drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, and work in factories, but the coffee (and as far as I can tell most other goods) are bought in olde-worlde marketplaces with metal coins whose value depends on the actual amount of metal in them rather than the number stamped on their faces, and there's no sign of the actual products of these factories - said cigarettes, for instance, are hand-rolled, and there's no sign of prepackaged ones being available. Magic is, so far as I can tell, comparatively rare, and as far as I can tell guns don't exist - even elite government agents carry swords instead of firearms - so why did Warden and Adolphus slog through all that trench warfare, a variety of combat that only makes sense in battles where guns are ubiquitous and the primary weapon of choice?

These are, of course, worldbuilding quibbles, and under some circumstances I'd be inclined to say they're irrelevant, but the way Polansky presents his worldbuilding makes it relevant simply by throwing this confusion at me all the time. If we were dealing with a bog-standard setting - medieval Europe with the nasty bits filed off a la Feist, say, or medieval Europe with the nasty bits shoved into the spotlight at every opportunity as per the current grimdark crop then the worldbuilding isn't that important - once the author's dropped enough nods as to the basic premise of the setting then you've basically got a handle on how stuff works there and you don't need to know that much more. Somewhat more idiosyncratic settings, such as the pseudo-1930sish world in The Manual of Detection, might need a few more such nods, but even there once you realise "oh, it's kind of like the 1930s only allegorical" then you've more or less grasped the basic axioms, so provided the book gives you reasonably regular reminders of that you're not too likely to get lost. Then you have fantasy or SF with an outright peculiar setting, like Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris stuff or Perdido Street Station or Wolfe's New Sun-Long Sun-Short Sun stuff, where showing off the worldbuilding is at least partially the point because the author wants to show how shockingly original they are and the reader - if the author is doing a halfway good job - wants to figure out this bizarre little society they've been presented with.

I can more or less deal with all of the above, provided the authors in question show a reasonable level of judgement as to how to handle their worldbuilding - judging when to show, when to tell, and when to just leave something out because the reader can work it out for themselves just fine with what you've already given them. This Low Town setting, however - this confounds me. Polansky clearly wants to gun for the weirder end of the fantasy setting scale, so he helpfully throws out a lot of worldbuilding hints, but they don't seem to add up to anything; instead, they seem to contradict each other, and in doing so mutually annihilate and leave me with less of a picture as to what this world is like rather than more of a picture. I'm not saying that a fantasy world needs rigorously detailed geography or magical cosmology or economics or political history or whatever; instead, I'm talking about a sense that there's some sort of cohesive vision underpinning what we're being told about the world, whether that cohesive vision is actually the result of producing painstaking background notes or faked on the fly.

(Then again, one could argue that a fantasy detective story kind of demands having a carefully worked-out magic system which you share with the reader - or at least, it does if you want to retain the pleasure readers get out of trying to work out how the murder happened in the first place. If the solution to the locked-room mystery is "they did it with magic the reader doesn't know about" then that's just kind of disappointing; if the solution is "they used the magic which lets them travel through mirrors which was mentioned earlier, and the reason no mirror was found in the locked room was that the killer was the one who discovered the body and they were able to smuggle it out", then at least the reader's been given a sporting chance to figure it out. I didn't read far enough here to see whether The Straight Razor Cure has that sort of magic system though I saw suggestions that it might.)

Low Town doesn't have that cohesive vision; Polansky fails to create the illusion that I'm being told about a real place, and given that he named the whole series Low Town that does seem to be an especially troubling failure: such a title implies that a sense of place would seem to be a priority here. He seems to be aiming for the sort of effect some of the New World authors get (as Mieville does with somewhat more success in Perdido Street Station) where hallmarks of disparate historical eras are tossed together asynchronously to create the impression of a time and a culture which isn't quite analogous to anything from Earth history - but the difference between Polansky and the sort of writer he's trying to emulate is that whenever he draws my attention to a bit of worldbuilding he highlights how threadbare it is; rather than distracting me from the cracks in the facade, he points me directly at them.

Of course, Discworld is similarly nonsensical, so maybe Polansky is going for comedy? Again, I really don't know; the tone of the novel is just as incoherent as the setting. Sometimes it seems as though Polansky is going for the same sort of "like our world only not" satire as Pratchett, and there's more than a few light-hearted interactions involved, but then again: drug-dealing main character stuffed with woe, gruesomely murdered little girl. Those are not elements which naturally lend themselves to comedy, but then again a talented enough humourist could possibly make it work (though step one might be to dial back the "ruthlessly butchered little girl" angle). Pratchett was able to weave murder, mopey protagonists, and the criminally-inclined residents of a big city into a reasonably good read in whichever of the half a dozen City Watch novels with those features I'm thinking of right now. (Men at Arms? Yeah, let's go with that.) If I can mistake your fantasy world for Discworld when I'm drunk, that's a really good sign if you are writing satirical comedy fantasy and a really bad sign if you want to tell a serious (or at least straight-faced) story, and so far as I can tell Polansky wants to do the latter.

Not that it's much of a story. Polansky's command of misdirection - arguably a central skill of anyone out to write a detective story - is... uh... well, when Warden goes to see his wizard pal the Crane, the Crane says "DON'T BOTHER TRYING ANY SCRYING ON THE MURDERS, I ALREADY DID AND IT WON'T WORK". Then when he goes to his friend Celia (who, remember, is the Crane's apprentice and Warden's implied childhood sweetheart) she is all "I AM A GOOD WIZARD AND I WOULD NEVER EVER EVER EVER STUDY BLACK MAGIC WHICH MY MASTER HAD FORBIDDEN TO ME, NOT THAT HE EVER STUDIED DUBIOUS MAGICAL PRACTICES HIMSELF". You probably think I'm kidding here so here's a direct quote:
Her face assumed the strained pose I'd often seen her adopt as a child when she didn't get a joke. "I have trained myself to follow in the footsteps of the Master, and thus studied the specialties he has perfected - alchemy, spells of warding and healing. The Master never saw fit to learn the patterns by which a practitioner does evil to his fellows, and I would not think to pursue avenues that he has determined to ignore. It requires a certain kind of person even to practice the darker shades of the Art - neither of us is capable of it".
Can you get any more blatant? (Yes, actually, you can: the above speech seems even more dodgy in context than it does in isolation.) Anyway, after I got too pissed off to persist with the book I flipped to the back and, SPOILER ALERT, who guessed who the killer was? Me, that's who. And based on the final scene in which Warden mentions some sort of misdirection that the baddies attempted on him, I can only assume that Polansky genuinely wanted to misdirect the readers too for dramatic purposes.

So, what got me pissed off enough to stop reading? It's those dratted Minority Warrior instincts again, I'm afraid. They started twitching when it turned out that one of the more prominent ethnic minorities in the city are Islanders, who are "quick with a jest and a song", smoke and deal the local weed analogue and are particularly adept at a musical style which involves them playing a rhythmic beat on drums and speaking "rhyming poetry" over it. Hmmm,, I thought, is this Polansky's attempt at diversity? Is this meant to be Low Town's local equivalent of black people, and if so is the fact that the first one I am introduced to a drug-dealing rapper rhymer something I should be worried about?

Well. Maybe I'm being too quick to judge there. After all, it's not as though one of the other ethnic groups in the world have Chinese-sounding names and are introduced as being mysterious and inscrutable dope-peddlers, right?
"Follow Broad Street past the Fountain of the Traveler and you'll see a bar on your right beneath the sign of a blue dragon. At the counter will be a fat man with a face like a beaten mutt. Tell him to tell Ling Chi I sent you. Tell him to tell Ling Chi that I'm going to be snooping around his territory tomorrow. Tell him it isn't related to business. Tell him I'll consider it a favor. He won't say anything to you - they're a cagey bunch - but he won't need to."
Oh, fuck the fuck off. It doesn't get better at all, does it? Anyone? Strange Horizons? Like that all the way through, huh? Jolly good. Into banishment and eternal fire it goes.

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Comments (go to latest)
Anyway, after I got too pissed off to persist with the book I flipped to the back and, SPOILER ALERT, who guessed who the killer was? Me, that's who.

I read that a little too fast and parsed the last bit as:

and, SPOILER ALERT, guess who the killer was? Me, that's who.
James D at 06:14 on 2012-06-23
Now THAT would be a hell of a plot twist. Arthur skims ahead in the book, only to find out that it was he himself who committed the crime. That's like some avant-garde Italo Calvino shit right there.
Michal at 07:21 on 2012-06-23
I seem to remember this author slagging off "traditional" fantasy for not being grim & gritty enough just before the release of this book, a la Richard k. Morgan. That's almost never a good sign.

Bit strange that the title for this in North America is Low Town. 'Cause we just couldn't handle The Straight Razor Cure, I guess?

Shim at 10:09 on 2012-06-23
I read that a little too fast and parsed the last bit as:

and, SPOILER ALERT, guess who the killer was? Me, that's who.

You're not the only one. I was there for a while trying to work out if that was just the classic noir first person and Warden had been murdering people in a drug haze, or was pulling an Agatha Christie on me - or whether it was in fact some messed-up modernistic whatthehell like James suggested.

How creepy would that be though, buying a mass-market(ish) novel and finding your very own self revealed as the murderer...
Dan H at 11:20 on 2012-06-23
I notice that the Strange Horizons review opens with:

In an urban, faux-London setting appropriated from Dickens via Pratchett, with extra grit from The Wire sprinkled on top, the Warden, a former street-kid, the semi-ward of a powerful sorcerer, a grunt soldier turned army lieutenant turned police inspector turned special forces agent turned renegade drug dealer and respected criminal force (and publican), uses his lackluster sarcastic quips, street fighting ability, ballistics training, convenient connections with mages, nobles, government employees, and law enforcement personnel, drug dealing skillz, knowledge of many languages, amaaaaazing detecting abilities, cultural awareness and superior tolerance of those different from him, and anachronistic modern worldview to consistently bungle solving a crime.

This does sound terrible - I apologize unreservedly for making you buy it.
Dan H at 11:41 on 2012-06-23
Also: I can't help but notice that the tagline for the novel is "Criminal. Murderer. Hero."

If anything screams "morally incoherent grimdark nonsense" that's it.
Arthur B at 14:19 on 2012-06-23
To be fair, the edition I bought had "LOW TOWN" in the place of "CRIMINAL. MURDERER. HERO.", which implies at some point between the early drafts of the cover and the final product someone did say "No, come on, that's just gratuitously juvenile". Which is kind of a shame because that tagline does kind of complete the picture of awful.

No apology needed, birthday money should be spent on spur of the moment nonsense and the process of tearing it apart was worth the price of entry.
Arthur B at 14:26 on 2012-06-23
Ahahahaha, how impossibly shitty is the trailer?

Also he seems to be under the bizarre impression that fantasy noir is at all new when Glen Cook, Steve Brust and Jedediah Berry have all done it before in slightly different ways.
Arthur B at 14:33 on 2012-06-23

Oh, and if you want more of his prose he reads extracts in this video, open mic night style but it's not fun because you can't heckle him.
Michal at 16:08 on 2012-06-23
I've always wondered: Is there such thing as a good book trailer?

Because I have yet to see one.
James D at 16:19 on 2012-06-23
Isn't trying to fuse noir/hardboiled detective fiction and grimdark kind of fundamentally flawed right from the outset, though? Both are gritty, sure, but at least in the hardboiled stuff I've read (like Chandler) he takes grit and violence and intentionally seeks to de-glamorize them by making things very realistic and unpleasant, whereas grimdark stuff takes grit and violence and turns them up to 11, thus intentionally trying to make things unrealistic and glamorized and fun.

For example, Phillip Marlowe is good in a gunfight, but he still gets beaten up now and then and it would totally kill the feeling of the books if he were able to take on roomfuls of thugs. Or, when you find out about what kind of nasty fate someone suffered, your intended reaction isn't WHOAAAAA DUUUUDE
Arthur B at 16:34 on 2012-06-23
Isn't trying to fuse noir/hardboiled detective fiction and grimdark kind of fundamentally flawed right from the outset, though? Both are gritty, sure, but at least in the hardboiled stuff I've read (like Chandler) he takes grit and violence and intentionally seeks to de-glamorize them by making things very realistic and unpleasant, whereas grimdark stuff takes grit and violence and turns them up to 11, thus intentionally trying to make things unrealistic and glamorized and fun.

I think Polansky, in common with a lot of grimdark authors, genuinely thinks he's doing the former when he is actually doing the latter - that, or he and the grimdark crowd genuinely can't tell the difference.
it would totally kill the feeling of the books if he were able to take on roomfuls of thugs

I would guess this happens a lot more in books written after special effects and action choreography in movies became commonplace. It would be a lot harder for a reading audience to imagine one person fighting enormous crowds of people hand-to-hand and winning if they hadn't seen that happen onscreen a million times.
Alice at 16:54 on 2012-06-23
>I read that a little too fast and parsed the last bit as:

>and, SPOILER ALERT, guess who the killer was? Me, that's who.

You're not the only one.

Same here!

Agreed that this sounds terrible. Also, is that Strange Horizons review meant to be indicative of Polansky's writing style? Because that's a hell of a long sentence. I mean, I quite like long sentences, and I got lost well before the half-way point.
James D at 20:07 on 2012-06-23
I would guess this happens a lot more in books written after special effects and action choreography in movies became commonplace. It would be a lot harder for a reading audience to imagine one person fighting enormous crowds of people hand-to-hand and winning if they hadn't seen that happen onscreen a million times.

That's possible, but I get the idea that grimdark also owes a lot to Conan the Barbarian, who regularly sliced his way through hordes of racist stereotypes with impunity. Conan's morality applied to high fantasy is how I've always seen grimdark.
Arthur B at 20:16 on 2012-06-23
Conan's morality applied to high fantasy is how I've always seen grimdark.

I don't think that's quite the case - Conan's morality kind of stems from a very developed WE MUST KILL THE NEGROS BEFORE THEY KILL US ideology of Howard's - but I agree that grimdark runs with the morality people like to ascribe to the Conan stories (as opposed to the morality they actually espouse).
James D at 23:12 on 2012-06-23
Fair enough, you could say it's the common misconception of Conan's morality applied to high fantasy, then. Though given how well grimdark fantasy tends to treat minorities, the distinction might be a mostly academic one.
Arthur B at 23:24 on 2012-06-23
Yeah, I rather suspect Polansky thinks he is being way awesome and progressive by including people who aren't white in his fantasy story but from a reader's-eye-view it looks like reheated old-timey racism on a grimdark bun.

Now I wish Polansky had a tagline to match Warden's. "Hack. Grimdork. Racist."
Ashimbabbar at 02:04 on 2014-04-01
It's a very minor point, but you can have trench war in heroic fatasy IF you have magical heavy artillery - the best example is I know being the amateur gamebook Raid on Château Fekenstein by Al Sander ( it won the windhammer prize in 2008 so it can be found and downloaded on the arborell site ).

Some of the missies used actually turn people within the area of effect into mindless hideous ravening monsters ( and you'd understand why frontline troops need drugs to hold on )
Arthur B at 14:27 on 2014-04-01
The presence of trench warfare as such wasn't the issue so much as the fact that on the one hand, the way the trench warfare was described made it unambiguously clear that we were supposed to see the war in question as a World War I analogue (right down to the names of the battlefields), but Polansky isn't able to capture a similarly vivid and coherent sense of place and time and theme when dealing with Low Town itself, which is kind of a problem when it comes to the setting that most of the book actually deals with.
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