Daniel Polansky is the author of Low Town, a noir fantasy novel that takes a darker, less explored path in fantastic fiction:
Drug dealers, hustlers, brothels, dirty politics, corrupt cops . . . and sorcery. Welcome to Low Town.
In the forgotten back alleys and flophouses that lie in the shadows of Rigus, the finest city of the Thirteen Lands, you will find Low Town. It is an ugly place, and its champion is an ugly man. Disgraced intelligence agent. Forgotten war hero. Independent drug dealer. After a fall from grace five years ago, a man known as the Warden leads a life of crime, addicted to cheap violence and expensive drugs. Every day is a constant hustle to find new customers and protect his turf from low-life competition like Tancred the Harelip and Ling Chi, the enigmatic crime lord of the heathens.
The Warden’s life of drugged iniquity is shaken by his discovery of a murdered child down a dead-end street . . . setting him on a collision course with the life he left behind. As a former agent with Black House—the secret police—he knows better than anyone that murder in Low Town is an everyday thing, the kind of crime that doesn’t get investigated. To protect his home, he will take part in a dangerous game of deception between underworld bosses and the psychotic head of Black House, but the truth is far darker than he imagines. In Low Town, no one can be trusted.
Polansky recently spoke with me about his influences and slumming around the globe.
Critics are describing Low Town as “noir fantasy”. Do you agree with this? What does it mean to you?
Sure, I’ll go with it. Low Town takes place in a non-earth setting, with countries and language that doesn’t exist on earth, and there are sword fights — so between those two it’s got a pretty good claim to being a fantasy novel. That said, I think the narrative is set up in a more traditional noir/crime style. There’s not a traditional quest, and the world-shaking consequences which usually accompany fantasy books are absent. It’s more about a guy trying to survive a dangerous situation that he’s largely created through his own mistakes.
Low Town’s protagonist, Warden, is an interesting character: a former war hero and government operative turned criminal. While it would be easy to dismiss him as just a “bad guy”, it seems that he has his own code of ethics. He reminds me of some of the detective characters I’ve run across in noir fiction. I’d love to know if what, if any,works of mystery or pulp fiction influenced his creation.
It would be hard to hide the debt I owe to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in particular. The Warden isn’t identical to Marlowe and the Continental op, obviously — he’s a little more bitter, and a good deal less moral. But those two guys in particular were just a tremendous influence on my work — the idea of maintaining some ethical standard in a world which eschews it, that being a decent person is fundamentally out of step with the times, that was a powerful idea for me. And of course they’re both great writers, especially Raymond Chandler, who I just think is criminally underrated in terms of the quality of his prose.
Let’s talk about cities. In a lot of fantasy fiction the cities themselves are characters in their own right. I’m thinking of places like Lankhmar, Sanctuary and New Crobuzon. Were any of these influences? How did you develop Rigus and Low Town?
I’m a childhood fan of Lankhmar, but I don’t know that it had much of a direct effect on the setting of Low Town. I’m a big history buff, so I think probably it was more just doing a lot of thinking about the state of pre-modern societies, the problems the average citizen would be faced with and so on. I’ve spent a lot of time in different cities here on earth, of course, so a certain amount of that made it into the book. I’ve been in slums on three continents! Yay!
How long did it take to take Low Town from initial concept to final product?
If by final product you mean the hard cover copy, about two and a half years. Some of that was finding an agent and then finding a publisher, so I wasn’t exactly hammering prose the entirety of it. The draft itself probably took about four months, I dove into that pretty quick. Down the line of course, I paid for my lack of diligence with a lot of rewrites.
Low Town is your first published novel, but most writers I know have a few earlier works sitting on their hard drives. What about you? Will we see any of them now? A related question: what do you plan to do next?
Actually Low Town is the first substantial work of fiction I ever took a crack at — though in the long wait to get it published I tried my hand at a couple of things which will almost certainly never see the light of day (though my favorite, a novella length piece half The Wild Bunch and half The Wind in the Willows, really ought to). As for what comes next: the sequel to Low Town, to answer succinctly. Still working through a title (those don’t come easy), but hoping to get it out sometime next year.