Review: Low Town, by Daniel Polansky (2010)

comment 1
books / film noir

Low Town cover

In Rigus, capital city of the Thirteen Lands, the detritus, down-and-outers and addicts all live in the old part of the city, Low Town. It’s a place where you can satisfy whatever craving you have, as long as you’re willing to deal with the constant risk of violence, plague and corruption. The enigmatic rogue and war vet known only as “The Warden” has made Low Town the seat of his narcotics empire, having rose to the position after working for the city’s secret police, the Black House, before an unceremonious dismissal. When he comes across the body of a murdered girl on his turf, the Warden finds that he’ll need to draw upon every one of his old skills as a soldier and detective to survive long enough to piece together what happened and possibly even save the city in the process. Along the way, he’ll alienate himself from all his friends and get mixed up with even worse enemies, in the classic noir style.

Low Town comes from a relatively recent branch of fantasy literature that seeks to blend classic swords and sorcery with noir tropes and hardboiled storytelling. It sits well among works like Richard Morgan’s excellent returning veterans saga The Steel Remains, Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. books, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and perhaps the granddaddy of them all, Terry Pratchett’s Captain Vimes cycle of the Discworld books, which started with Guards! Guards! in 1989.

Low Town stands out from Cook and Pratchett’s Philip Marlowe-influenced white knight detectives, though, with the composition of its drug-abusing, quick to violence hero, who more closely resembles someone out of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, or the works of Jim Thompson. The Warden is a very intriguing character, and I very much enjoyed the flashbacks to his life growing up alone on the streets of Low Town, and also to his disastrous service during the war against the Dren Commonwealth. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the war was based on the First World War rather than the Second, the latter being the impetus for the noir style to develop. It did raise a few technical concerns for me, though, as trench warfare was based around machine guns and barbed wire, both of which being seemingly absent from the setting. Still, the description of what went down during the horrifying raid on Donknacht made up for any cognitive dissonance I got from the mixing of genres and eras.

While the storyline was engaging and full of entertaining douchebags for the Warden to butt heads with, alongside the war stuff I found some of the world-building behind Rigus to be a little lacking. The setting is low fantasy, with minimal use of magic and no races alien to human other than a Lovecraftian pantheon of demons; the streets of Low Town are instead filled with people of different races, seemingly equivalent to people in our world. While I don’t think I need a whole Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting-style rundown of what it means to be from each of the Thirteen Lands, some more differentiation would be extremely useful. A bit more insight into what marks a Rouender from a Kiren, for instance, apart from differences in religion. I guess this might stem from the first-person narration from the Warden, who assumes we are up to speed on everything he’s talking about.

All in all, though, I’d definitely recommend Low Town to readers looking for fantasy with an edge, or fans of films like Chinatown or The Third Man. There are two more in the series, which has unfortunately not been picked up in North America but continues in the U.K.

The Author

Matt Bowes is a self-proclaimed cultural commentator/arbiter of good taste from Edmonton, Alberta. He enjoys movies and books, and writes about them sometimes at

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Media Consumption 2014 | This Nerding Life

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s