Daniel Polansky’s ‘Low Town’ and Other Bad Neighborhoods in Fantasy Fiction


Daniel Polansky’s Low Town explores a very different kind of story than most fantasy novels, focusing on the gritty underside of life in fantasy metropolis. The main character is a former soldier and current drug dealer with a brutal reputation known only as the Warden. When the body of a gruesomely murdered child is discovered in his territory, the Warden sets out to discover the truth. Inspired by the noirish sensibilities of Low Town, I set out to ask other authors about the dangerous cities and neighborhoods of their own fiction. Here’s what they said:

Mercy’s Lot
Kelly Meding’s Dreg City series

Kelly Meding:

“Have you ever driven down the 101 in Los Angeles and accidentally found yourself on the wrong side of West  Hollywood? Yeah, that. I was glancing through Three Days to Dead and found a line that kind of sums up the neighborhood of Mercy’s Lot: ‘A hustler’s paradise; a hooker’s best corner.’

“It’s the part of the city you try to avoid unless you’re a local, and even then you’re either brave or stupid to live there (or, occasionally, you just don’t have a choice). The far west end of the Lot is the nicer part, with a few trendy, bohemian streets frequented by party-goers and college students and lost twenty-somethings. To the east is the harder part of town where violence is more frequent and the cops don’t go without backup–former “nice” shopping areas taken over by porn shops and liquor stores and nightclubs; low-rent apartments and housing; unkempt streets and sidewalks; enough washed-away spilled blood to make a CSI tech’s blacklight implode. The Lot’s also where the half-Blood vampires tend to do their hunting, goblins come out to kill, and you’re likely to see something scary and strange lurking in an alley.”

The City of Dublin
Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series

Karen Marie Moning:

“The Wall between Man and Fae came down on Halloween. A quarter of a million people rioted in the streets that night, before being devoured where they stood by Shades. The city is a mess. Abandoned cars block streets, some up on the sidewalks. Pub and store windows are broken and through jagged-edged spikes of glass we can see looted shelves, destroyed cash registers, overturned tables, shattered beer bottles and shot glasses, and many piles of clothing that look as if the person stripped where they stood and vanished. The truth is they were devoured where they stood. The piles are all that the Shades left of humans when they overran Dublin. Each pile of clothing is topped by a porous, faintly-yellowed white husk of indigestible human rind (teeth, bone matter, whatever the Shades consider the human equivalent of a shrimp-tail), jewelry, implants, glasses, purses, wallets, etc.”

Thremedon’s Molly District
Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett’s HavemercyShadow MagicDragon Soul and Steelhands

Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett:

Molly is the lowest of the ‘three-maiden’ districts in Thremedon. Populated by cut-purses, fishermen and prostitutes, it’s the darkest corner to do dirty business in—provided no one cuts your throat to steal the fine boots off your feet. The only thing more unpleasant than the people is the smell: rotting bilgewater laps at the lower docks, and it’s a lucky day when a bloated corpse doesn’t roll up on the beach for the seagulls to peck at. The only useful thing to ever come out of Molly was Airman Rook, and there’s been considerable debate over the value of that particular export.

Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series

Steven Brust:

“There is crime in Adrilankha. There are places, neighbourhoods, where with every coin that changes hands, a criminal gets a piece of it. Places like Malak Circle, or Weavers Row, or Little Deathsgate are so tightly controlled by the Jhereg that you can almost see an invisible hand reaching out to take a cut of every fowl sold at the market, every fee paid to a tag in a brothel, every pot taken by every gambler.

“Those are safe neighbourhoods. People who prey on the innocent know better than to mess with the Jhereg. Anything that’s bad for business is liable to be unhealthy.

“Then again, there are places like Admiral’s Hill, or the Palace District, where the wealthy merchant and the aristocrat live, and the Phoenix Guards patrol those places thoroughly. If you look like you don’t belong, you’ll be watched; and if you step out of line you’ll wish you hadn’t. The Phoenix Guards uphold law and decency, which means they aren’t as concerned as the Jhereg with guilt or innocence; the mere appearance of being a trouble-maker will earn you a beating if you’re lucky.

“But if you go east across the Stone Bridge or the Chain Bridge, you’ll find yourself in South Adrilankha, and there you’re on your own. The dregs live there, Easterners, the race of puny, scrawny folk who, at best, don’t live more than sixty or seventy years, and rarely reach more than six feet tall. They live there, if living you can call it, in their natural condition: amid refuse and filth, the violent and the depraved, the gangs and the predators. The strong live, the weak die, or at best hide. The Empire has nothing to do with it, and on the rare occasions the Guard must enter, they never go in groups of fewer than six.

“And yet, the Easterners continue to live there; going to work in the slaughterhouses until sickened by the unwholesome air, or the refineries until killed by an explosion, or the docks until crushed by falling cargo. But they live, and they breed, and they stay on their own side, and that’s best for everyone.”

Bordertown’s Old City
Bordertown is a shared world most recently featured in Holly Black and Ellen Kushner’s
new anthology Welcome to Bordertown. This mysterious city exists on the border between two worlds: those of elves and men.

Welcome to Bordertown
Ellen Kushner:

“Commonly known as Soho (because it runs roughly from Ho Street south), this neighborhood had been long abandoned before kids began to take it over, squatting in its run-down buildings and claiming it as their own territory. After a brief and dismal attempt to eject the squatters, the Bordertown High Council threw up its collective hands and ceded the derelict neighborhood to its youthful population.

“Soho has long been carved into territories ‘owned’ and patrolled by various gangs, some harmless (even helpful) and some decidedly not. (Get a map at the Poop if you want to know which gangs have claimed which streets.) Bordertown’s cops (i.e. the Silver Suits) generally won’t come to Soho for anything less than murder, so it’s up to the inhabitants to police themselves…which, for the most part, they do.

“Soho is surrounded on two sides (east and south) by the crumbling remains of the Old City Wall. Entrance into the neighborhood from either of these directions is through two gates (occasionally but not always controlled by gangs): Hell’s Gate (to the south) and River Gate (to the east).

“The neighborhood’s major thoroughfares are Ho, Carnival, and Carmine streets. Most of its popular clubs, restaurants, and galleries are on one of these three. There are two neighborhood parks (Tumbledown Park and Factory Downs); a haunted cluster of streets around Whisthound Square (where the buildings remain abandoned); and a neighborhood information center (The Poop) run out of a wheel-less trailer on Ho Street.”

Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series

Lieber scholar Berin Kinsman on Cheap Street, the most dangerous section of Lankmar.

“All streets in Lankhmar are dangerous, but if I had to vote I’d say the most treacherous is the Street of the Gods. Inaddition to the usual pickpockets and thugs, you find additional dangers unique to that stretch of road. Followers of the gods in Lankhmar jockey for position and favor against one another, trying to move further from the cheap stalls of the Marsh Gate and closer to the palace, where the temples are finer and more opulent. Some of the priests are mere hucksters, while others actually serve powerful beings, and it’s difficult to discern the two. The Thieves’ Guild requires protection money from the more affluent priests, and are not above taking it out of the faithful if they’re not paid on time and in full. While sometimes the gods inLankhmar put in an appearance with dire consequences, there is also the constant fear of offending the gods of Lankhmar. From street violence to corruption to supernatural beings, the Street of the Gods is the most dangerous neighborhood in Leiber’s fiction.”

The Hollows
Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series

Kim Harrison:

“The Hollows is a suburb of Cincinnati where Inderlanders tend to congregate. It’s deceptively harmless on the surface, pure Americana because, well, they are all Americans, but if you look close, you can see differences, such as the basketball hoops being twice the regulation height, flower beds often arranged in colorful anti-hex patterns, basement windows are boarded up, and ‘Day sleeper, no solicitations’ signs are prevalent. It’s quiet in the day, and dark at night as most of the streetlights have been shot out.”