Review of LOW TOWN & Interview w/ Daniel Polansky

Daniel Polansky is the author of Low Town (Doubleday) the first book in a trilogy that successfully combines two genres: fantasy and crime. Fans of fantasy will love this book; fans of classic crime and mystery will also enjoy it if they keep an open mind. I didn’t know what to expect, not having read many fantasy novels myself aside from some classics of the genre, but it sounded interesting and, especially, different.

Polansky has not only created an original and believable world, The Thirteen Lands, but also a rich history to go with it. The book starts approximately 15 years after what is known as the Great War that transformed the 17 territories into what is now the Thirteen Lands. Inside the great city of Rigus, there’s a neighborhood called Low Town where prostitution, drug trafficking and violence dominate daily (and nightly) activities. Even killing is pretty much business as usual.

Until children start disappearing and the chaotic order is threatened; it might be what will push the citizens of Low Town to start a revolt.  

In the Thirteen Lands, you might find parts reminiscent of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the street corners of The Wire all mixed-in together, but it is definitely an original Polansky creation. You’ll meet richly detailed and complex characters like the narrator, a man only known as the Warden, who controls the drug trade. He’s a war hero and a former agent with Black House, the secret police that is managed by a sociopath known as the Old Man.  

When the Warden finds the corpse of a missing girl, he decides to investigate, knowing that no one in Low Town will talk to the official law. A fairly simple investigation should follow but this is not a simple world; things are further complicated when a dark evil, born out of powerful sorcery, “a creature from the outer emptiness”, is unleashed in Low Town.   

Right from the start, you are drawn into this world and intrigued by the story. The voice of the Warden, along with the mental baggage of a past that has scarred him deeper than any physical wounds could, are raw and direct. The plot is peppered with some spicy humor, which helps lighten the mood once in a while. The characters who revolve around the Warden, the ‘good ones’ as much as the ‘villains’, all bring substance and depth to the story; they are strongly developed and interesting. Here are a few of them: the boy Wren, impetuous but with many resources and a deep knowledge of the streets; the towering barkeeper Adolphus, who's also a friend of the Warden; the Duke of Beaconfield, nicknamed “The Blade” for good reasons that I won't reveal here; and different characters from Black House, like the Warden's nemesis special agent Crowley, the Old Man, and an old friend and former colleague Crispin. 

One of my favourite of Polansky's creations are the scryers whose "duties include the inspection and anatomization of dead bodies"; a sort of forensic psychics who sometimes "get impressions, images or sense memories, bit of datas" from a corpse. As the Warden explains, these scryers "have no ability to effect the physical world, but rather a sort of passive receptiveness to it, an extra sense the rest of us lack." Scryers are employed by Black House to help the agents in their investigations.

Low Town is almost a genre by itself, a tough and dirty crime story staged in a world of sorcery. It comes with its own vocabulary, colourful expressions, and sharp dialogue. Low Town could be a big hit for Daniel Polansky who wrote a hell of a first novel. Intense, darkly magical and original.  

You can find a guide to the world of the Thirteen Lands, Rigus and Low Town on Polansky's  website .
And if you'd like to know a bit more about the author and Low Town, click on 'read more' for my interview with Daniel Polansky.


## The Thirteen Lands, with the city of Rigus and its tough neighborhood of Low Town, are peopled with many well-developed characters ranging from thugs to aristocrats with soldiers, sorcerers and whores in-between. You can’t possibly have created it all overnight; how long did it take you to have a clearly defined idea in your head before sitting down and writing?

D.P.— Honestly, I sort of just dove into it – I had never written anything novel-length before and didn't work with an outline (which was in retrospect, of course, a huge mistake). The world sort of shook out around the story. When I got to the end I realized that the seams were really showing, and spent some time conceptualizing the setting in a more deliberate way, and revising accordingly.

## Can you explain how you developed the idea and if it started mainly with the characters or with the places, the events, etc?

D.P.— It started with the protagonist. I had a clear sense of what I wanted him to sound like, who I thought he was. The world and the plot sort of sprung up around that.

## How difficult was it to find a publisher? Did you collect a few rejection slips?

D.P.— Ha! Yeah, one or two maybe. Probably not a lot of people would describe finding a publisher as particularly easy. Getting an agent actually proved to be the more difficult piece of the puzzle for me personally, for whatever reason. Once we were in a position to shop around for a publisher, things came together relatively quickly.

## What/who are your main influences in literature and in life in general?  

D.P.— That's a big question! In terms of Low Town, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are obviously guys I owe a debt to. Just more generally in terms of writers who have influenced me in some way, I could really go on a while. To break off a few – John Keegan and Shelby Foote got me to think about war in a serious way. Rebecca West and V.S. Naipaul got me traveling. Proust is what I read when I am traveling, because when the hell else are you going to slop through 4,000 pages of prose about the belle epoque except when you are in a foreign country and can't speak the language. I could go on, but won't.

## Did you grow up in a house full of books?

D.P.— Definitely. As a child my father's library seemed vast, a towering thing that you could literally climb to the top of. I stole from it till I was about 15, and then I started on my own collection.

## You did a B.A. in philosophy. Did it help in the writing of Low Town? And if so, how?

D.P.— I probably wouldn't say that it helped directly. I liked philosophy, I was pretty good at it, as far as that goes, which isn't very far. To the degree that some of the ideas I was exposed to helped shape my world outlook and so on, philosophy had some effect on Low Town. But I wouldn't say there was much concrete stuff that I re-purposed.

## When did you know that this world had the potential for a trilogy instead of a single book? 

D.P.— Almost from the beginning. I felt like there was a lot more to the Warden and to his world that I could explore, and am ecstatic someone is willing to pay me to do it.

## In books 2 and 3, will you go forward in time or will you give readers a bigger part of the past of The Thirteen Lands? How far into the writing are you at the moment?

D.P.— I've got a strong draft of book 2. It takes place a few years after Low Town, and follows a similar set up in terms of offering background information to the reader. Which is to say that it's all very secondary to the plot. I mean you aren't ever going to get like an encyclopedia of the Thirteen Lands or anything. I think the mystery of a foreign world is really what makes the thing entertaining. Also, I hate exposition. It's weak writing, pure and simple.

## Your main character, the Warden, describes himself as an ugly man with a “lumpen nose” that drips “below two overlarge eyes”, “an accumulation of scars that would shame a masochist”, an ear with its flesh torn, a long scar on his left cheek.  Can you name an ugly actor you’d see playing him? Just kidding. Could be an interesting role to play though. Any interest from the movie business people yet?

D.P.— Not so far as I'm aware, but my agent would be the one to ask about that. If anyone knows the Coen Brothers, though, do me a favor and slip them a copy of my book.

## In my review of Low Town, I mention that it brings to mind images of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (the TV series) with some aspects of The Wire mixed into it. As for books, it reminded me of the worlds of China Mieville and Neil Gaiman. All that said Low Town is definitely original. The comparisons can be obvious ones, of course, and even if authors don’t usually like comparisons, they are often necessary to publicize and sell books, especially in bookstores. How do you describe your book to potential readers?

D.P.— Oh man, I do such a terrible job of pitching my book one on one. It's really embarrassing. If you met me and asked me about my book, you would never buy it. I am an awful salesman. That said, I like all of your comparisons. Anyone who wants to put me and Neil Gaiman in the same sentence is welcome to do so—really, knock yourself out.

## In the previous question, I mentioned The Wire, which takes place mainly in Baltimore, and you are from Baltimore (born and raised?). How much of that city inspired you in creating Low Town?

D.P.— I was born and raised in Baltimore, yeah. I guess Low Town is more Baltimore than it is any other city, but mostly its own thing.

## The title of the book in the UK is The Straight Razor Cure. Were you consulted or do you know why they went with a different title? What was your working title while writing the book? 

D.P.— Actually, The Straight Razor Cure was my original working title. When Doubleday bought it they suggested I change it to Low Town, and I wasn't in a position to object. At this point I pretty much like them both.

## When you invent a world you can do pretty much what you want with it and put anything you feel like putting there without fear of having readers spotting mistakes (historical or technical). Did you do any specific research on certain aspects –for example for sorcery, weapons, drugs, etc?

D.P.— I read a lot of history just generally, and I've done a lot of thinking about how civilization has developed, the interplay between technology, government and culture, that kind of a thing. Since Low Town is set in a fictional locale, you do have some room to maneuver. At the same time the world needs to have its own internal logic, it has to make sense on its own terms. A reader can feel if you're cheating, even if they don't have an absolute knowledge of the terrain.

## The creation of worlds also brings neologisms and also some words and terms gaining new meanings or being applied in different situations than those for which they are usually intended. For the next books, are there any plans of adding a glossary and maybe a few maps of the Thirteen Lands, of Rigus and of Low Town?

D.P.— Personally, I am opposed to it. Part of the point of a fantasy setting is that it's unfamiliar, foreign to what we're used to. When I think of my favorite fantasy novels (Gene Wolfe comes to mind) they don't come complete with a definitive explication of the setting's scaffolding, if you will. You've got to kind of battle your way through it. I've thought hard about how much information to provide about the setting by way of the narrative, and feel it's best left there.

## The Warden goes through a bit of everything from war in the battlefields to encounters with black magic spirits, a few good beatings, a lot of drugs, some friends but no love story. Will he meet someone special or is it too late for him?

D.P.— Who would want him? I mean he's not the most stable bet. The Warden has had his share of romantic entanglements in the past, which you'll hear a little more about down the line. Beyond that, I'll have to keep my mouth shut. Or pen sheathed. Or computer keys unpressed. You get the idea.

## What are your expectations now that book 1 is out there, in different countries and languages; any pressure while writing book 2? How do you focus and keep it from getting to your head?

D.P.— I don't have much in the way of concrete expectations, so much as high hopes. As far as focusing goes, I don't have any more problem with it than I did before I'd sold anything, which is to say that it's a constant struggle that I occasionally emerge victorious from. And finally, I've always been overcome by my own self-importance, so my skull is pretty much swelled to maximum capacity as it is.

## Anything you’d like to add or say to potential readers?

D.P.— There's a hidden 100 dollar bill in every copy of Low Town! Run out and buy it! (*Editor's note: The above is a lie.)

## Enough about you; what’s the best book you’ve read this year and would recommend?

D.P— The best book this year? I read a lot, so that's hard to narrow down – but for simplicity's sake, I'll strongly, strongly recommend anything by Jim Thompson, who is so spectacularly good it hurts my brain a little. 

September 2011


  1. I really like the sound of this one. Thanks for highlighting it.

    (I will never understand why the marketing people feel they need to give US and UK releases a different title.)

  2. I have got to read this book! (I actually have a copy, just need to get it to the top of the book stack). soon, I promise.