Audiobook Review: Low Town by Daniel Polansky

10 06 2013

Low Town by Daniel Polansky

Read by Rob Shapiro

Random House Audio

Length: 11 Hrs 39 Min

Genre: Fantasy Noir

Quick Thoughts: Low Town is gritty fantasy noir told in a slogging style full of shady characters, deep mysteries and forbidden magics. It’s a unique blending of detective noir, second world fantasy and urban fantasy that creates a dark, often hard to stomach feel that while never sitting quite right finds a way to wedge itself into your psyche.

Grade: B-

I hated Low Town. I mean, simply hated it. Low Town by Daniel Polansky hit the shelves nearly two years ago and garnished praise from critics and fellow bloggers alike. There was a while there where it felt like everyone was reading Low Town on the SFF side of my twitter dial and loving every word. Some of my go to speculative fiction bloggers said this was a title I must go to, so I got up and went. I bought the title on Audible, followed the author and was very excited to give it a go. Then hated it. I made it maybe 3 Hours in before ripping the earbuds out of my ears and screaming lamentations to the heavens. Over the next few weeks, I saw the author announcing good reviews and praise and I seethed, eventually unfollowing him. Now, I was listening to it when I was sick, and in one of the most stressful times of my life, but, there were audios I simply adored during those times, so I wrote it off as a lousy excuse. I decided Low Town was dreck and I was sticking to my guns. If I knew about the Audible return policy I may have swapped it out for a novel that James Patterson got someone to write for him so he could attach his name to it and announce it the best thing he ever wrote on a TV commercial. But I didn’t. Then came THE ACCIDENT. This occurred when I plugged the wrong hoziwhat into the incorrect thingababob or something, and my MP3 Player dies on me one day when I just wanted to be listening to something good. I was then relegated to seeing what I could pull up on my audible ap, and the only unlistened audiobook I had available was, well… duh dah!!!!! LOW TOWN. Luckily, I only had to listen to like an hour or so, then I’d be home and I could do some zombie robot unicorn thing. Except… stuff happened. I was intrigued. What’s this…. mystery, magic…. drugs! Now… hold on… missing kids! Strange killers! Drugs! WTF IS HAPPENING!!

The Warden is a hard luck, fallen drug addict surviving his daily grind peddling his mind altering substances to the denizens of the lowest of all areas in the town of Rigis. When The Warden discovers the brutally murdered body of a young girl, and the secrets her corpse holds, he realizes he must confront his past in order to stop a repeat of history. Low Town is gritty fantasy noir told in a slogging style full of shady characters, deep mysteries and forbidden magics. It’s a unique blending of detective noir, second world fantasy and urban fantasy that creates a dark, often hard to stomach feel that while never sitting quite right finds a way to wedge itself into your psyche. I never really fully embraced Low Town, but I did get ensnared enough in its spell to keep me sticking with the story to the bitter end. Polansky is a strong story teller and takes a lot of risks in his world. I think people may do better with Low Town if they come at it from strictly one side of the fence, particularly Fantasy readers. Most of my issues came with Polansky’s use of mystery tropes. He creates wonderful and memorable characters, but his attempts to misdirect and the single mindedness of The Warden in his focus on a particular villain at times had the opposite affect, acting as a blinking red arrow to the correct path, with just enough information to get the framework of the jigsaw together. Where Low Town shines is in his creating of Rigis and the thirteen cities, and in it blending of history informing on the modern time. Polansky’s examination of the great plague that made The Warden and orphan and started him down his path was so vivid and powerful, that I missed it when we returned to the present day story. Also, the few relationships that The Warden did maintain all contributed to the plot so well that despite the traditional "Hey, let’s kidnap someone the protagonist cares for" plot twist the ending actually came off fresh and maybe just a bit exciting. Polansky also created a social structure that made unique hurdles for The Warden to jump and added many layers to the narrative. I ended up liking Low Town. Despite my issues with some parts of the tale, I am glad I never swapped it in for something a little less special.

Rob Shapiro did a strong job narrating this tale. He uses a gritty, deep voice to deliver Polansky’s dark, shady world that fit perfectly. Most of his character voices where well done, although I did find some of his female and children voices a bit less distinct. Yet, I did have one issue with Shapiro’s reading, and this only the second time this has happened to me in an audiobook. On an interesting level, and probably unconsciously, I think Shapiro telegraphed aspects of the ending. There was a scene where a character, let’s call SPOILER delivered a line in such a way that I think it indicated SPOILERS true shady nature. There were trigger words in the narrative, and a small mention of a strange reaction to SPOILER’s comments by The Warden, but Shapiro delivered it in such a strange way, that I started questioning SPOILERS motivations in a way I never would have in print. I hate bringing this up, because I can just see annoying anti-audiobook person yelling "SEE! AUDIOBOOKS ARE EVIL!" Yet, I have listened to over 1,000 audiobooks in my life, and this is only the second time this has happened to me, and the other was due to a poorly used accent in a throwaway scene. This is another reason I have had trouble reviewing this book. I stand by some of the comments I made about Polansky’s plotting, but I also know Shapiro’s narration contributed to my figuring out too much of the plot before the not so surprising ending.




2 responses

10 06 2013
Carl V. Anderson

I remember reading much of the praise of the book when it came out. Interesting to read about your initial reaction to it. I tend to veer away from most “gritty” books, despite liking them on occasion. There is some weird, nebulous fuzzy line that sits in me where too much reality, or too much gritty reality, makes for something I’d rather not be entertained by. And yet there are always exceptions.

Also I find it interesting how timing can make all the difference in how we react to a story. I’ve had similar experiences where I tried something, didn’t like it, and came back to it later only to be wowed by it. Your experience here wasn’t quite that, but I’m glad you found enough to like to finish the book.

10 06 2013

I too have had a similar experience where I’m reading a book at the wrong time, and HATE it, and then go back a few months later and it’s just fine.

I’m one of those specfic bloggers who loved Low Town when it came out. I hadn’t read much noir, I hadn’t read much grimdark, it was all new and amazing to me. I LOVED it, I went crazy for it. and yet.

and yet I have very little interest in reading the sequel, and eventually sold my copy. Looking back, I don’t know what all the fuss what about. Heh. It must have been the right book at the right time for me.

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