Daniel Polansky’s Low Town Trilogy and the Evolution of Modern Fantasy

By Oliver Johnson

Posted on October 30, 2013 in Books with tags Daniel Polansky, Fantasy

The topography and culture of fantasy has changed. It’s nearly 80 years since Middle Earth arrived with its exotic landscapes populated by reluctant yet noble heroes, a myriad different races, histories older than time. The map and the journey back then were huge:  the roads went ever on, through trilogies, tetralogies and more…

To my mind at least, in recent times, the landscape of secondary world fantasy has turned inwards, to the dystopic, disenfranchised of society:   the new protagonist is an anti-hero. In the Low Town novels that man is Warden, embittered war veteran, disgraced secret agent, drug lord, with baggage as big as a mountain, as big as the bag of Pixie’s Breath and Choke he’s about to flog to his equally disenfranchised clients on his blighted turf, a turf he will fight to the nails for.  He’s a man with shivs aplenty, not least the eponymous Straight Razor.

Sure,  the Low Town novels form a trilogy, sure there are imagined worlds, Rigus and the Thirteen Kingdoms, and they’re  inhabited by exotic people. But these books are all about how one character sees the world, and, in Warden’s case, viewing  is a pretty jaundiced experience. His eyes have seen plenty bad things and survived the seeing.

It’s the voice that seduces: the aphoristic one liners, the sparking dialogue, the dissonant feel that, though this might be Rigus, it might be related by a character from The Wire or Sam Spade: it’s real and strange all at once. The occasional dazzling flare of magic illuminates the darkness that hangs over the Low Town slums as Warden plots, schemes and disposes.

How could you empathise with his moral ambivalence?  Because like a Dave Gemmell hero he is morally rooted. He doesn’t go after the weak or infirm or the insane. Self-serving bureaucrats, bent politicians, betrayers of trust and stone killers are his breakfast of choice.  The grim moral universe of the Low Town novels is our own modern universe, reflected back. That’s what makes the novels resonate, what makes the Warden one of the great fantasy creations.


Oliver Johnson is Daniel Polansky’s UK editor. The final instalment of the trilogy, She Who Waits, publishes on October 31st.


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