ARC provided by the publisher—Orbit—in exchange for an honest review.
The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Series: The Fetch Phillips Archives (Book #1)
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 352 pages (UK paperback edition)
Published: 6th February 2020 by Orbit (UK) & 2nd February 2020 by Orbit (US)
A well-written urban fantasy with a wonderful take on the premise of “what happens when magic runs out?”
The Last Smile in Sunder City is Luke Arnold’s debut, it’s the first book in an urban fantasy series titled Fetch Phillips Archives. I think I’m speaking on behalf of many readers that we have come to know the name Luke Arnold from his role as “Long” John Silver in the Black Sails TV series. Admittedly, I didn’t finish watching the TV series until I saw Orbit’s announcement of Arnold’s debut, which frankly intrigued me. He did an incredible job there on the TV series, but how about his debut as a fantasy author? Well, there’s nothing to worry about, this was a great read, and I think if you know what you’re getting into, you’ll find that there’s plenty of things to love within this short book.
“I like books. They’re quiet, dignified and absolute. A man might falter but his words, once written, will hold.”
The world used to run on magic, but when the magic of the world disappeared, every magical creature suffered from the effects extremely. The story follows Fetch Phillips, a Man for Hire who worked odd jobs to help non-Humans in order to redeem his sin. Fetch’s job in this novel is to find a missing professor, a four hundred years old vampire. This situation seems impossible, the loss of magic should’ve ceased vampires’ existence, and so the mystery thickens and Fetch’s investigation begins. We’ve heard of this premise before, many stories have danced their tune upon this premise, but I have to say that Arnold’s writing style and fascinating world-building was able to invoke a refreshing feeling surrounding the concept.
“In my short and sorry life, I’ve seen many people hide a desire for terrible deeds beneath an apparent higher calling. It’s not hard to find a belief system that will support your own selfish needs. The big surprise for me was discovering that it works the other way too. These broken-winged brothers, even without their story, just have naturally decent hearts.”
Almost the entirety of the novel focuses its narrative on two timelines, one being the present which revolves around Fetch’s investigations, and the other one Fetch’s flashback narrative that led to his biggest sin. Please don’t come into this book expecting there will be many action scenes, in total there were probably three small scenes, but the lack of action scenes doesn’t mean that it’s a boring book; not every book need action scenes to shine. Throughout the novel, we follow the first-person narration of Fetch Phillips exclusively, and honestly speaking, there isn’t much to Fetch’s characterizations that made his background or character distinctive. You know how it is, he’s someone who regretted his actions, ended up running to booze, and now he wants one more shot at redemption. It’s a common story, but thankfully, redemption is a theme, when done right, that I enjoy reading, and Arnold nailed the voice of the main character superbly. I do sincerely hope that there will be more prominent side characters in the sequel to add varieties to the narrative because Fetch was the only noteworthy character in this book. However, what’s lacking in the cast of characters department was redeemed by Arnold’s lovely writing style that made the themes of penance, hope, and regrets in the narrative so compelling to read.
“I was only in my thirties but I was old. You don’t measure age in years, you measure it in lessons learned and repeated mistakes and how hard it is to force a little hope into your heart. Old just means jaded and cynical and tired. And boy, was I tired.”
There’s something about Arnold’s prose that I found to be so accessible, melancholic, and lovely to read. The word ‘Smile’ may be in the title of the novel but don’t let this mislead you into thinking this is a hopeful book, focus on the word ‘Sunder’ instead. The Last Smile in Sunder City is bleak and depressing, the melancholic tone infused into the prose was splendidly done. For example, one of the main themes of the book is how dangerous hope can be. Take a look at these two passages:
“Maybe nobody gets better. Maybe bad people just gets worse. It’s not the bad things that make people bad, though. From what I’ve seen, we all work together in the face of adversity. Join up like brothers and work to overcome whatever big old evil wants to hold us down. The thing that kills is the hope. Give a good man something to protect and you’ll turn him into a killer.”
“But it’s easy to accept your fate when you know you can’t change it. Things get harder when you have a little hope.”
Aren’t they so well-written? I found Arnold’s way of using the juxtaposition of situations to get his point across was incredibly effective to get my attention.
A great actor and also a great writer, Fetch Phillips would most likely say that life isn’t fair. But hey, as an avid consumer of escapism content, I’m happy that I’ve watched Black Sails, and I’ve read this book. The Last Smile in Sunder City is an urban fantasy debut with an impressive writing style and intricately immersive world-building. The book certainly ended on a standalone manner, and I have absolutely no idea where the story will go from here. I look forward to what Arnold has next in-store!
“Mostly, these historical legends come in pairs. Nothing allows a man to flourish quite like an adversary of equal strength. On their own, some of these figures might never have been noticed, but face them off against each other in bloody conflict and both names get drilled into the record book. A good man is made through a lifetime of work. Great men are made by their monsters.”
Official release date: 6th February 2020 (UK) and 2nd February 2020 (US)
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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