There is a power available to first person narratives, being wholly inside the protaganist's head and experiencing the story only through their eyes. The people and the context are filtered by the lens of the unreliable narrator's own distorting perspective. I have just finished this book and I am suddenly struck by the thought - do I even know the narrator's name? He is the Warden and I have ridden so intimately in his head that I know and use his own name as little as I would think of my own in everyday life. I am and so is he.
The story is sustained by an intoxicating mix of rich ingredients. The writing is lyrical, the view point like a fantasy version of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's smooth private investigator. Our Hero, like Marlowe encounters murder and straddles the cultural map, between the squalor of the underclass and the unjustified privilege of an elite tottering unknowingly on the brink of extinction. But the Warden is more that Marlowe, he has a complex past and when we first him his business is trafficking a variety of imaginatively named narcotics, rebranded for a fantasy setting, after all vice is universal. When you think of the city of Rigis (of which low town is the seediest quarter), think not of Minas Tirith, so much as Dickensian London, or even the Gilroy's cartons of the gin houses of Georgian times. The warden is not above sampling his own wares, a sniff of pixie breath getting him through a variety of very trying days and there are plenty of them in the course of this book.
But this is so much more than Marlowe with magic. There is a city struggling with the aftermath of a plague and a war, which add elements of 1660s London and early twentieth century England to the delicious stew that Polanski is cooking. The Warden has a dark past forged in a gruellng warfare of trenches and incompetence. Maybe it is the bloodbath of Verdun, or the torment of Iwo Jima's meat grinder, either way the Warden's reminiscences evoke a vivid impression of the horrors of war, of sundered comradeship. The finale of the war also resonates with the end of the second world war, an unimaginable weapon unleashed that destroys the enemy and saves lives. But this is not a nuclear bomb it is a vile work of magic, and the Warden did not see the last of it when the war ended.
Within that fragile national psyche, the Warden wonders through a polyglot city filled with nationalities so well known to him that we, who ride on his shoulder, must absorb an understanding of the complex cultural dynamics through an osmotic experience rather than explicit description. I cannot say I fully understood the differences, but this is a story not a travel guide and it is extremely well told. Every character, small or large (and some of them are very large), is given the dignity of depth and vitality and difference. No cardboard cut outs here, no generic grunts. Yancey the slightly spaced out musician, his match making mother, or the sultry madam, or the sick old man in the tower and his apprentice the woman with whom the Warden shares an unfulfilled past, and especially the leader of the Kiren and his elaborate formula of greeting and discourse. I enjoyed most those passages where the Warden and he exchanged threat and counter threat beneath a veil of wordy courtesy.
The bleak well crafted atmosphere reminded me of the Blade Runner film, the steam rising in the streets and, be it buildings or weather, interiors or exteriors, Polanski paints with a colourful palette. The Dickensian element comes to the fore in the street urchins, Wren - the would be artful dodger - determined to make the Warden into his mentor, and the Warden determined not to do charity, not to be good, but finding he cannot help himself when murder stalks the streets of Lowtown.
The writing is rich not spare, the dialogue sharp, the characters always convincingly true to themselves. It is a book that enveloped and absorbed me and, too near the end, I realised I should have book marked more quotes to share - but then let other readers find them for themselves. I did note this one just as one exemplar of what I liked in the writing. A descriptor of a guest at a debauched party for the jaded rich, "Up close she looked like someone better seen from further away."
Reading this book is like watching a cook creating something beautiful and engaging from a variety of ingredients and yet still surprising at the end - so that although I had watched the whole process at close hand, I was left marvelling, where did that come from?