The greatest city in the Thirteen Lands, Rigus stands as a radiant hub of grandiose manors and sparkling citadels. It's a place where nobility rules and disagreements are settled with honourable duels. In the shadow of this glory sits Low Town, a vast warren of dark, narrow streets, dirty alleys and boarded up windows. Low Town is a place where life is cheap as the lower class struggle to eke out an existence.
As befits such an ugly place, it's champion is "The Warden", an ugly man and crime lord addicted to narcotics and drawn to violence. A former hero and agent who spends his days protecting his turf and selling his illegal wares. That is until chance delivers him to the body of a child and sets him on a road of deception, murder and evil that could consume not just himself but the entire city.
Narrated in the first person, there is a confident and very comfortable voice projecting from the pages of the book that makes you feel right at home pretty much from the word go. With a self-depreciating manner and subtle humour the character of "The Warden" is deliciously dark and quite far from the goody two-shoes ideology of "the hero". The small amount of time we spend learning about the protagonist's colourful history is carried out by the tried and tested use of flashbacks which are done with aplomb and not once get in the way or affect the pace to any noticeable degree.
The novel follows this grim and dark feeling too, very adult in theme with descriptive violence and bad language it doesn't throw any punches but is never gratuitous either. This dark vision is somewhat balanced by the colourful and rich characters that populate the story and each one is magnificently drawn without too much time spent on back story.
There is a rich balance between gritty fantasy and detective noir which works surprisingly well and the story plays out very much like an olde-worlde fantasy detective story. I particularly liked the downplayed use of the fantastic, the focus firmly placed on people rather than creatures and while there is some magic involved it plays a minor part and supports the story rather than being a major part of it. This proves very effective at creating a strong feeling of realism.
The plot works well, there is enough in the way of twists and turns to keep the reader hooked although I did find it a little predictable and had to wait a few times for the Warden to catch up. Having said that there were a few very good red herrings, I did I enjoy the journey immensely and couldn't put it down through most of the story - a testament to the quality of the writing. The author is confident enough to mix modern vernacular with traditional and it works surprisingly well in the dark-age setting while the dry humour and brisk, no-nonsense prose is remarkably effective.
The character of the Warden really does steal the show though, a great man fallen from grace, a born survivor who does things that others wouldn't do to survive and yet beneath the drug dependency and moral ambiguity has a kind heart and a sensible (if somewhat ugly) head on his shoulders. You can't help but feel for the guy, even turning a blind eye when he takes the odd sniff of his favourite narcotic. One of the most refreshing things about him though is stark honesty about his character. This isn't someone who's trying to redeem himself or seek forgiveness for his (many) crimes, he's pretty comfortable with who and what he is. The use of the first person in this situation is a stroke of genius and really does help the reader to get that bit closer to the character.
Despite seeing the admittedly great ending coming from a mile away whilst waving a big red flag, the Straight Razor Cure is a book I really enjoyed from start to finish. It's something quite special from a clearly talented author, one with a bright future ahead of him.
Written on Tuesday 5th June 2012 by Antony Jones.
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