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Author’s debut novel does fantasy and magic right

Kevin Noonan | Tuesday, November 29, 2011

“Low Town,” the debut novel by author Daniel Polansky, brings a fast-paced blend of crime noir and fantasy genres that result in a thrilling and mesmerizing read.

The novel is always on the edge of one cliché or another. It’s set in a grimy, crime-infested town controlled by a corrupt government and sets a bitter, hard-edged former-cop-turned-criminal as its antihero protagonist.

A morally horrific crime, the murder of a child, draws him out of his routine and forces out his heroic and noble side, which he tries so hard to keep hidden.

On the surface, that sounds like a pretty stereotypical crime noir novel. I’m pretty sure I could churn something out with that formula at my fingertips.

But just when it seems that the novel is going to settle into a mire of predictability and unoriginality, Polansky throws in a huge curveball.

This is no ordinary crime novel. First, the story is set in an alternate universe in which the civilization apparently never progressed beyond the technologies of the 17th century.

The people are still dealing with the aftereffects of a great war, as well as a devastating plague that ravaged the population.

And on top of all of that, there’s magic.

Polansky does not spend his time explaining all of these developments. Though slightly frustrating at first — frankly it was hard to understand what the narrator was talking about some of the time — it eventually accomplishes two very important goals.

First, by not belaboring the point and going over the top explaining every detail of this new world to readers, he avoids a trap that many fantasy novels fall into: wasting half the novel on boring background explanations that don’t mean anything to the story.

Second, by illustrating the world of the novel through the narrator’s eyes and telling the story as he would’ve seen it, Polansky makes the whole thing feel much more real and accessible.

As a whole, this magical new world, which is alluded to more than explained, keeps the novel from becoming a stale repeat of every fantasy or crime novel ever written. The blend of styles, along with the fast pace of the story telling, keeps readers from focusing on any one single cliché in the book long enough for it to become an issue.

And as far as stories go, this is a good one. It is filled with action and mystery, with enough twists, turns and unique characters to keep readers fascinated on every page. There is real emotional development with the characters, a point lost in many fantasy and crime novels.

The book is not perfect, though. There is a certain level of weird that one must get over to get lost in this novel. All the magic, terminology, names and little details are just a bit weird — that’s the only word for it.

Polansky’s writing style, while well developed and appropriately paced for this novel, rubbed me the wrong way at times. Maybe it’s my delicate sensibilities, but every time I read the “f” word in a book, it comes off wrong in my head, and I lose the pace of the story for a little bit.

If you’re not into wizards and magic, this isn’t for you. If you’re not into gratuitous violence, this isn’t for you. If you’re not into books, I can’t help you. Wait for the movie.

But if you’re looking for an engaging read, and mystery and fantasy are your slices of pie, this novel is right up your alley.