In Polansky’s dark, moody debut novel, there’s no sun, no joy, and staying alive for another day is about the only reason to rejoice; the grim setting makes for an interesting tale about a man with a past.
Warden, who grew up on the hardscrabble streets of Low Town, survived odds that would have killed lesser men. As a child, he watched his parents succumb to the Red Plague, which killed most of the adults in the city. Only a fortuitous encounter with his mentor, the Crane, saved him and the waif, Celia, whom Warden rescued from a terrible and sordid fate on the lawless, plague-ridden streets. As a very young and foolish man, Warden marched off to war and saw his men slaughtered, but he also witnessed something else, something beastly and obviously not from his world. The former law-enforcement officer turned drug dealer suspects his past could be catching up to him when innocent children begin to disappear and old comrades from his agent days exhibit a newfound interest in him. Polansky’s fantasy world eschews beauty and reason: Low Town and its inhabitants take their inspiration from a combination of the Middle Ages and modern drug trafficking. The streets of Low Town are dirty, corrupt and filled with drug users, although with the grim lives they lead their habits are understandable. Warden, an antihero with no immediately apparent redeeming qualities, becomes a reluctant crusader whose capacity for violence is underestimated by both his enemies and friends alike. The author has constructed a believable alternate world, but it’s a brutal one, where a short, miserable life is almost a given, and using the toilet means tossing the contents of a bedpan out of a window. He introduces a large cast of characters, while creating a plausible back story that draws them all together. The only place the tale fails is in the denouement, when the motivations of the antagonists come off as muddy and unclear.A strong debut novel with a hero who doesn’t waste time worrying about the moral implications of cutting someone’s throat.