Science fiction and fantasy
The Straight Razor Cure
by Daniel Polansky
Drug abuse seems to be the weakness of choice for a certain style of modern fantasy hero. It's a conveniently variable condition that hints at a crisis in the character's past, leading to this outward display of some kind of sickness of the soul. The main character in this novel, the Warden, certainly qualifies as a man with a troubled history. A former soldier and agent of the Crown, he's reduced to selling drugs on the streets of Low Town.
"High" FantasyOther notable substance abusers in fantasy:
So it's not strictly fantasy, but in Frank Herbert's Dune the melange-munching Paul's control of the spice trade made him a dealer on a galactic scale, as well as a user.
In Robin Hobb's Farseer books magic is an addiction as strong as any drug.
Rio Youers' antihero in End Times is a compulsive ex-heroin addict, and even when he's off the horse his junkie past will not let him go.
Stacia Kane's ghost hunter is defined by her drug problem in The Downside Ghosts.
The hero of Simon Spurrier's novel A Serpent Uncoiled relies on a cocktail of substances to keep his demons at bay.
Take away the magic and Low Town is a familiar place, a world much like our own might have been like a few hundred years in the past. The people live in fear of the return of a plague that laid many people in the ground, before a magician called The Crain put up wards to stop it. Law enforcement is carried out with brutality and incompetence, and the divide between rich and poor is stark. Lord Beaconfield, nicknamed the Smiling Blade, is one of a class of people for whom duels are a way of life and death, and it's one law for the nobility and another for the rest.
Daniel Polansky's world is colourful and engrossing, for all its similarities to somewhere like eighteenth century London. The Warden is frequently under attack, but I liked the way he's an imperfect fighter. Although he's a veteran of conflict he has weaknesses and he can be bested, so we're never sure whether he'll emerge from any confrontation unscathed. He's also surrounded by characters like the bear-like publican Adolphus, Yancey the Rhymer, and the posh agent Crispin. All of these larger than life figures emphasise the Warden's history and make the story more rounded. Not forgetting Celia the mage, who has a propensity for bouts of cute will-they-won't-they flirting with the Warden. This is a story with lots of light and shade, perfect for getting lost in.
However the ending didn't feel quite right for me. It seemed to lack enough of the right kind of clues and foreshadowing, so the answer to the mystery seemed to come completely out of the blue and wasn't as credible as it could have been.
Nevertheless The Straight Razor Cure is entertaining. The Warden talks well for a junkie, in shocking contrast with the desperate "wyrm" addicts with their ruined faces and addled brains. This is a softer tale than it thinks it is, in spite of occasional outburts of violence. Likewise the Warden may think himself ugly and scarred, but he's actually an attractive character who left me wanting to read more about him.
28th August 2011
If you like this, try:A Serpent Uncoiled by Simon Spurrier
Dan Shaper sees visions of his own corruption. He is forced to confront his guilty past when a killer starts picking off victims in this crime novel.
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A young man goes on the run in an unusual city in this fantasy adventure.