BOOK REVIEW: Tomorrow, The Killing

‘Regret’s not enough – you have to pay for it.’

If you read his fantasy noir The Straight Razor Cure you’ll have a good idea what to expect from Daniel Polansky’s follow-up: a hard-bitten hero; a dirty city, with dirtier secrets; the death of innocence and the blazing path of vengeance.  What I didn’t expect was just how much Polansky would up his game.  It’s a much stronger, more confident book, with a muscular plot and a tightly bound narrative.

You haven’t read The Straight Razor Cure?  Doesn’t matter.  Like all the good pulps, these are stand alone adventures.  Sure, you might have a shade more texture if you read them all in order, but Polansky does a cracking job of containing his stories.  There’s none of these foreshadowings or cliff-hanger endings that force you (cursing) straight back to the book shop.  He does that with the quality of his writing.

The past comes back to haunt The Warden once again as the great General Montgomery, now an old and broken man, contacts him to find his daughter and bring her home.  Lost somewhere in the morass of Low Town – that wretched patch of filth the The Warden calls home – she is stirring up trouble in search of answers.  The Warden may be a scumbag drug-dealer now, but he owes the General, and he may be the girl’s last chance to get out alive.  What follows is a domino trail of destruction, with deft homage to The Big Sleep and Last Man Standing.

Once again Polansky makes use of flashbacks to this world’s Great War to inform The Warden’s character, flesh out his history and shed a little light on the present case.  I really loved these sections in the first book – could happily read a whole story in that setting – so I was thrilled to be going back there in Tomorrow, The Killing.  He puts real-time in pondering the meaning of war and what it does to people.  We witness scenes of pride and shame, blood and endless sucking mud.  Propaganda encourages folk look back on it with nostalgia in their world (and ours) and, although the truth is sickening, there’s just something about the hellish atmosphere and desperate camaraderie that makes for compelling reading.

“We weren’t heroes, my friend… At best we were victims.”

With complex themes of corruption, regret and restitution it was never going to be a breezy book but it has a surprisingly light touch.  The chapters are punchy, the locations are varied and this time I was kept guessing right up until the end – the mark of a good mystery.  It was really good to see more of the city and its underworld figures.  Low Town is developing nicely as a living environ.  I got a real sense of the web of politics and the balance of power shifting, without ever feeling like Basil Exposition was yammering in my ear.

Pleasingly the darkness is balanced with a lot of dry humour and some genuinely laugh out loud moments.  Much of it stems from The Warden himself: his cynical wit is (straight-) razor-sharp and he has a great habit of using it to make his troubles worse.  He’s a brilliant character – a sour, savage, sharp-minded sap, mired in darkness and disillusionment.  He might not be a good man but he’s a survivor, an anti-hero you can get behind.  He takes so many beatings, so many harsh hands of fate that you will him to win through.  We seek redemption for him even if he feels beyond saving.

‘It’s a dangerous thing, pretense.  A man ought to know who he is, even if he isn’t proud to be it.’

If I have one criticism of the book it’s that some of the characters get short shrift.  Long-running sidekicks Adolphus and Wren feel just as one-note as in the previous book.  We see more of Adolphus as a soldier and a man, but we learn little new, whilst orphaned Wren has moved from taciturn child to taciturn teenager with nothing but strops to mark the difference.  It’s a shame, as they both play an enormous part in what keeps The Warden connected to humanity.  In many ways they (and Adolphus’ wife) are his family, but they pale in memory compared to newcomers Mazzie of the Stained Bone and Asidu The Damned.  Anyway, quibbles… quibbles…

It may be a hard, bleak and twisted noir but Polansky’s writing is disturbingly like the Warden’s ‘merchandise.’  Take a good hard hit and you’ll see the whole world differently for a while.  It may be ugly, but it’s dangerous and exciting too.  Sure, you may feel a bit rough when you come back out of it but trust me, it won’t be long before you’re twitching for another hit.

Look out for the November issue of the Geek Syndicate Magazine, where we’ll be printing a full interview with Daniel Polansky about The Warden, his world and Tomorrow, The Killing.

Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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