Monday, May 02, 2016

Review: "She Who Waits," by Daniel Polansky

After enjoying the first two books in the series, it took me a while to get around to Daniel Polansky’s “She Who Waits,” ($13.99, Hodder), the final volume of the Low Town trilogy.

For those unfamiliar, the books center on a character known as the Warden, a former war hero and government agent turned drug dealer. He owns the streets of his home, a grimy, impoverished and crime-ridden warren known as Low Town. But even in a place like Low Town, he can’t escape his past.

There’s a new drug on the market, called Red Fever, which can induce violent rages. The users are often aware of the horrific acts they’re committing, but unable to stop themselves. It’s a calling card that’s familiar to the Warden from his days in secret police unit Black House.

Meanwhile, a religious organization, the Sons of Sakra is making a play for Black House’s power. The Old Man, leader of Black House, calls on his former agent to infiltrate the Sons and find out their plan, but the Sons have also called on the Warden for information on Black House. It finds the Warden doing a dangerous dance as a double agent that puts him and everyone that he cares for in jeopardy.

Much like the second volume of this trilogy, the fantasy aspects of “She Who Waits” take a backseat to espionage and a gritty view of street life. With only a few slight tweaks, this book could easily be a crime drama set anywhere. That, however, doesn’t detract from what is a very solid story.

While Polansky has shown us definite weaknesses in the Warden through the first two books, in this volume, we get to see a lot more of what the confident bluster that he shows to the outside world covers up. He’s grown older, and his doubts and misgivings are up front in this story, making us see him as more human and less of an unbeatable badass – although he still has plenty of badassery in him. He’s a very changed man, though, from the one we met in “Low Town” (or the better-titled “The Straight Razor Cure,” depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.) Somewhere along the way, while he wasn’t paying attention, the Warden has picked up just a little bit of humanity.

The conclusion of the Warden’s story does leave me with some lingering questions, as well as a desire to learn more about his adopted son Wren and where life takes him. Wren, to me, is an interesting character who is perhaps a bit underutilized in this book. Polansky seems to drop hints about him throughout, but in the end, we’re left to wonder if he can finish his magical education and live up to his potential.

Hopefully, Polansky will one day give us the answer to that question. Until then, he has given us a darkly fantastic portrait of a tragic anti-hero in the Warden that should continue to fascinate well after his story is finished.

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