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Low Town: The Straight Razor Cure by Daniel Polansky
Review by John Berlyne
Hodder & Stoughton Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781444721294
Date: 18 August 2011 List Price £18.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Just like Century, Hodder & Stoughton are no stranger to genre books - they publish Stephen King and Jasper Fforde for example. At the same time, Hodder have not invested much in the way of works that compete with the Joe Abercrombie's and George R.R. Martin's of this world - and as we're all aware, taut, cynically political fantasy with lots of swearing is pretty much what everyone's into nowadays - myself included.

Great then to see Hodder publishing this brilliantly titled and executed début novel by US author Daniel Polansky, The Straight Razor Cure. Published in hardcover in the UK, Doubleday will publish at the same time in the US and Canada - under the alternative title Low Town - and translation rights have been sold all over the globe. Definitely one to watch!

"Here, the criminal is king. The streets are filled with the screeching of fish hags, the cries of swindled merchants, the inviting murmurs of working girls. Here, people can disappear, and the lacklustre efforts of the guard ensure they are never found.

Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer; now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and a way of inviting danger. You'd struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his. But then a missing child, murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley.

And then another.

With a mind as sharp as a blade and an old but powerful friend in the city, he's the only man with a hope of finding the killer... if the killer doesn't find him first."

British publisher Hodder is no stranger to genre fiction – they publish a few lesser known authors, such as Stephen King and Jasper Fforde. In spite of this, they have no dedicated genre imprint and consequently they are not a name that comes to mind when listing those market driving houses such as Gollancz, Orbit, Tor Uk and Voyager...

...this though, may well be about to change. With the arrival of a highly respected editor (Oliver Johnson) with a penchant for and a history in the field, Hodder are starting to dip their toes into the water a little more boldly and with the publication of Daniel Polansky's quite brilliant début fantasy, Hodder are making a bold statement of intent, for The Straight Razor Cure is as good a début as I've read in a long time.

Our hero, rather our anti-hero, is a nasty piece of work, a tough ex-law enforcer who goes only by the name of The Warden. He ekes out a living in Low Town as a drug dealer, using his wits and his fists to secure territory in what is a difficult and contested industry, with rival bosses and gangs always trying to muscle in.

Polansky quickly and skilfully sketches out both Warden's environment and his essential character. Low Town is a dark and sordid suburb of Rigus, itself the finest city in the Thirteen Lands. We learn of recent wars in which our man was a soldier and we learn of his fall from grace as an agent of the law. We learn too, of less recent history - his childhood on the streets during the great plague outbreak which decimated the population (his family included) and of his adoption by the great magician whose wards eventually eradicated the outbreak and still keep it controlled to this day.

For Warden though this is old news. His is a hand-to-mouth existence and he's definitely not one prone to nostalgia. However, even he feels dismay at the news of a missing child, and when he stumbles across the young girl's body in an alleyway whilst on a delivery, it opens up a can of worms that forms the plot of Polansky's tale.

This grim discovery causes much of Warden's past to come calling. His colleagues from the Secret Police do not remember him with fondness and they descend on him like a ton of bricks. It soon becomes clear that he's going to have to find some way to allay their suspicions of his involvement in the child's murder and this in turn drives him to visit the old magician who, like Warden, is not than man he was.

Worst of all, it soon transpires that the darkest of magics is at work in the city and unless Warden can find a way to stop it what could be unleashed might be the end of them all.

This complex plot unfolds in neat and tidy chapters populated by a beautifully rendered and very memorable supporting cast. There are any number of high-points, from the Stalin-like psychopath who oversees the policing of the city to the pampered and inscrutable and ornate heathen crime lord - Polansky's characters are all very, very dangerous indeed! And there is a wry and witty tone to the work that will delight fans of Joe Abercombie, and with Warden's sharp tongue often as cutting as his blade, Polanksy announces his presence as a serious contender in the marketplace.

In short, The Straight Razor Cure has it all – and as the name suggests, it is sharp, steely and viciously bloody. Highly recommended.

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