Low Town, by Daniel Polansky (24/107)

I am now prioritizing books by size — this one got moved up the queue on account of being large and hardback.

Verdict: good!

Best thing I’ve read in quite a while, in fact, which is surprising since a summary of the book doesn’t give you much to get excited about: ugly criminal in a grimdark ugly city is investigating sorcerous murders that really aren’t his responsibility to solve. That Polansky makes it work is a testament to his ability to make an unexpectedly likeable protagonist out of the most unpromising source material.

The Warden (I’m not sure we ever get a real name for him) is what makes Low Town the best grimdark fantasy I’ve read, because for all that life is nasty-brutish-&-short where he comes from, he’s got a sharp sense of humor that keeps the book from sinking in on itself. He reminded me a lot of Mildmay from Sarah Monette’s Melusine — not book-smart but still intelligent and observant, with excellent deadpan snark and an appreciation for the absurd, filtering the world through a first-person POV that can find gallows humor even in the worst of circumstances.

Moreover, he has friends. He has people who like him, that he likes in turn. This really shouldn’t be such a big damn deal, considering that most people in real life do, but all too often in fiction you get page after page of the protagonist’s interactions with people that we’re told are their friends, when in practice they seem to barely tolerate their presence. (Morgan’s The Steel Remains jumps out as an example of that, but other grimdark fantasies aren’t any better.) The Warden certainly has no shortage of people who hate his face, but he’s also got people who have his back and like to kick back with him for some good-natured banter. (My favorite interactions in the book are between the Warden and a snarky street kid who decides to become his sidekick. Hallmark moments, they are not.) The Warden isn’t a very nice person most of the time, but he might be a good one, and it’s through his friends that we see that.

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