Low Town by Daniel Polansky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Meet the Warden of Low Town, a pure survivor in this post-apocalyptic world where plague decimated the population, likely setting the stage for a war that took even more lives on both sides. From a struggling street orphan to battlefield leader, he ascends to the top in a special operations investigative unit charged with maintaining order by any means necessary. Eventually the laws of gravity and women initiate the Warden’s fall from grace, leaving him back on the streets of Low Town, where he reinvents his identity using the tools he has learned as a survivor.
The Warden is a self-made man in the local drug trade after dethroning a syndicate to carve out his territory. He’s not a thug but there is clearly a very dark side to this man, as he maintains a delicate balance between criminal entrepreneur and neighborhood guardian angel. It’s that last aspect of the Warden that pulls him back into his former investigator roll where multiple factions look to either manipulate or destroy him before he can unmask a sinister killer who leverages dark magic to murder children and cover the trail.
This is Daniel Polansky’s debut novel that takes you to the dregs of a society trying to redefine itself after plague and war. There are no ‘good guys versus bad guys’ in this read; only varying degrees of bad guys who exist in this world after anarchy where the unwritten laws of the street are still based on individual survival due to a disinterested ruling class.
From the outset you can feel the grime littering the streets come off the pages and see the grey-cast gloom in the sky. There is a building tension throughout the book that parallels the detailed actions as the Warden hunts the anonymous child killer. It’s uncovering this society through the Warden’s interpersonal relationships with the variety racial and social backgrounds that I found most intriguing and most enlightening from a personal standpoint.
There is plenty of action and entertainment as well and you’ll fly through the pages as this fallen hero closes in on his nemesis. The Warden faces death at multiple turns in a novel where the good guy may not necessarily win but he’ll go down hacking with blade in hand if it comes to that.
It’s also a story of choices and consequences, which leads back to varying degrees of bad in everyone. You’re exposed to interpersonal moral dilemmas where doing evil to serve the greater good is overlooked, but also accrues a debt that must eventually be paid by the laws of karma or nature if not men.
Because of his obvious character flaws, I find it’s easy to root for the Warden. He’s a hard man who also loves those in his inner circle in his own hard way. Honor does not hinder him to do what he must and it is duty to his people in Low Town that drives him. His back story is revealed a spoonful at a time and by the end there are still more questions about what drove this man to the life he leads.
There are plenty of other questions, and a few characters left at the end to set up what should be a great sequel to Polansky’s incredible debut sci-fi, mystery, action-adventure novel. Having just come off a five-book high-fantasy series, this was the perfect change of venue; top notch.
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