My friendship with Peter V. Brett is well known. In multiple interviews, we’ve both talked at length about how we’ve known one another since high school, how we critiqued one another’s manuscripts and encouraged one another to keep going when the climb seemed too steep.
I wax ecstatic about Pete’s amazing books on a routine basis. I mean every word, and even if we’d never met, I’d still say the same things, but I can understand folks who cock a skeptical eyebrow. Nothing I can do about that, except back up why I love Pete’s work so much, which I think I do tolerably well.
I have never met Daniel Polansky. I know nothing about him. From what I can tell from his very infrequent tweets, he splits his time between Brooklyn and Japan and maybe Baltimore? We’ve exchanged a total of maybe 5 messages on Facebook and Twitter over the 3 years since we met online. He seems like a nice guy, but I can’t call him a friend. I think if you were to count up our total bidirectional-comms, the grand total would clock in at under 1000 words.
So, when I tell you that he’s an absolutely amazing writer, that is predicated on nothing more than the quality of his work. I have no dog in this fight.
There’s been a lot of buzz and attention devoted to the latest crop of “grimdark” authors (writers whose work takes a frank look at the darker side of human motivation in fantasy): Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, Peter V. Brett, George R. R. Martin, even Scott Lynch to some extent. The protagonists of these stories are deeply and badly flawed, interesting but frequently not likeable, and all the more compelling for it. They are traitors, thugs, thieves, political schemers and criminal masterminds.
And they are awesome. I wrote about the why of their awesomeness over at Chuck Wendig’s blog a while back.
I’m bummed that Polansky isn’t generally considered a member of the grimdark club. His debut novel LOW TOWN and its sequel TOMORROW THE KILLING are absolutely on a par with the authors I listed above. They are triumphs, gripping and harrowing, disturbing the way Waters’ REQUIEM FOR A DREAM or Ennis’ CROSSED are: horrific car crashes that you simply can’t look away from. Polansky’s work resonates with reality in all its facets. It does what the very best fantasies do: blurs the fictional line, transporting the reader to the extent where they lose the distinction between the real world and the one they’re visiting. LOW TOWN becomes less of a fantasy and more of a 60 Minutes expose on the darker side of the city you already live in.
I have spent much of my career in law enforcement at the federal level, and most recently at the local level. Add to that years in the spy corps and the military. I shudder to think how many of my mental compute power has been dedicated to considering the criminal thought process over the years. I like to think I know a thing or two about how cops, criminals, spies and soldiers think.
Polansky nails it. He nails it with such incredible accuracy that I wonder if he’s possibly former CIA, or occasionally does side work for the FARC. Polansky looks at the criminal underworld with a rigorous honesty, never shying away from the depredation, and never obscuring the heroism and humanity in the name of ratcheting up the drama. He is a writer who understands the culture of retired veterans, city alleys and the seedy underbelly of the community of violent professionals who fall on the government side of the line, occasionally stepping over to get the job done.
He takes fantasy to a new level, extrapolating with an incredible ability. He deserves to be on your bookshelf right next to GAME OF THRONES, THE WARDED MAN, PRINCE OF THORNS or THE BLADE ITSELF.
But last time I checked LOW TOWN’s amazon.com sales ranking, the paper back edition was kissing the 1,500,000 mark.
There are two main ways books sell. The first and most important (and I mean by an epic order of magnitude) is word of mouth and its cyber equivalent. The second, rightly or wrongly (and this is changing as amazon takes over the world) is the cover.
Take a look at Polansky’s Hardback cover:
Now, take a look at the paperback cover:
Look, I’m not going to spend a lot of time bashing Doubleday’s art department, but I will say this: Polansky’s fantasy is low magic along the lines of Martin and Abercrombie. There has been a lot of cross-over (to great success) lately between the audiences for literary fiction and genre fiction. True Blood and Game of Thrones dominate TV ratings. Tattooed hipsters are going to Comic Con. Whitehead wrote ZONE ONE. The dude who kicked my ass in high school and took my lunch money is now sport a t-shirt with a D20 on it that reads “THIS IS HOW I ROLL.”
I think Doubleday was trying to market Polansky to a literary audience, hoping to start some kind of mainstream-crossover domino effect.
Bad call. Those covers are doubly bad. For one, they’re not visually appealing. Worse, they don’t pop off the shelf and grab the reader’s eye. They’re easy to ignore.
Publishers make bad calls all day. There’s nothing new about that. I get what Doubleday was trying to do. They took a risk and it didn’t pay off.
But the real tragedy here is for the fantasy audience. Polansky isn’t just a good author. He’s a ground breaking author. He’s one of the best that fantasy has seen in a long time. It kills me to think that fans are missing out on his work because they look at the cover and think “what the hell is that exploding shape thingy? I don’t even … oh, look, here’s another book with a cover that is appealing and makes sense. I’m going to buy that one.”
I’ve only ever blurbed one author in my entire career, another friend of mine, the fantastic Wes Chu. If you haven’t read the LIVES OF TAO, get on the stick.
Daniel Polansky is a master. The covers don’t do the work justice. He’s doing something special for this genre I love so much, and I’m grateful for it. I want him to be able to keep doing it. And for that he needs to sell more books.
So, give him a chance. You won’t be sorry.
Buy LOW TOWN here at Indiebound.
Here at Barnes and Noble.
Here at Amazon.