The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Fetch Phillips Archives
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy
Published: 6th February 2020 by Orbit (UK) & 2nd February 2020 by Orbit (US)
ARC provided by the publisher, Orbit in exchange for an honest opinion. All opinions expressed in this review are my own and the quotes included may have changed in the released copy.
The Last Smile in Sunder City is a UF mystery, imbued with a unique personality, a moody atmosphere and a deep wistfulness.
The very first paragraph set the tone quite immediately, hurtling you into Fetch Phillips’ melancholic thoughts and destroyed world. For the world, or more specifically the world’s essence, was indeed destroyed beyond repair six years ago when the humans decided they were done being the inferior race. Early on, we learn that the Human Army discovered the location of the source of magic and by trying to harness it for themselves, froze it instead. The immortal Elves withered, The Vampires lost their vigor and their fangs, the shapeshifters became monsters, neither beasts nor men, the mighty dragons fell from the sky. And Fetch Phillips, former soldier turned PI, believes he’s the one to blame for this tragedy. Racked with guilt and regrets, on a steady diet of opiate and alcohol, Fetch became a man for hire, working solely for non-humans.
Life once felt so grand and meaningful. This new world is hushed. Diminished. Fleeting.
I should have loved this book. I used to enjoy mysteries and I was excited to revisit this genre in a unique Urban Fantasy setting. I was warned beforehand that The Last Smile was a slow book. No problem! Investigations tend to be slow and complicated. But Fetch’s was downright tedious and I felt the pacing suffered from multiple digressions. Fetch’s misery and guilt impeded his investigation and he became his own obstacle, turning in circles, ignoring promising leads, mouthing off, getting himself trashed and thrashed and trying desperately and unsuccessfully to redeem old sins.
What had I become, when laughter felt like a lashing?
If I’m being honest, this could have worked for me if I cared more about Fetch. Heck one of my favorite UF series mixes investigation and personal tribulations. But Fetch was not a likable character. He did his best to prevent you from liking him, especially at first. His investigation quickly turned into a meandering stroll down memory lane and was pervaded with so much misery and remorse that I had to consume it a little sip at a time.
It didn’t help that I also found the characterization wanting as Fetch had to take most of it upon his wary shoulders. It was too much for a one character to carry, more so when said character was already weighed down with his past. The other characters came and went, too furtively and lacking depth to make a lasting impression. The only interesting ones were the ghosts (figuratively) from Fetch’s past and the missing vampire he was tasked to track. Neither of them had enough screen time to develop into well fleshed out personalities, even though their influence on Fetch’s life and personality was tangible.
A good man is made through a lifetime of work. Great men are made by their monsters.
Characters and pacing issues put aside however, I was thoroughly impressed by Luke Arnold’s writing and imagination. The prose was just perfect for the story and the atmosphere. Arnold’s words were straightforward, clever and raw and even felt oppressive when the situation demanded it. Following the unfolding story, it went gradually from dry and quite emotionless to quite evocative and engaging, capturing skillfully the subtle shifts that took place in both Sunder City and Fetch.
I like books. They’re quiet, dignified and absolute. A man might falter but his words, once written, will hold.
Something I very much enjoyed as well were the detailed flashback sequences that Arnold incorporated into the narrative and that told young Fetch’s story prior to the Coda, the destruction of magic. Though these sections didn’t redeem Fetch in my book, they urged me forward to discover the real story behind the continuous hint dropping and made me appreciate the extent of the disaster that befell the world and its consequences. The world, post-Coda, was meticulously built, morbidly fascinating and one of the bleakest and saddest I’ve visited so far.
We all fear the other, and if we ever make friends with our enemy, the first thing we do as allies is identify some new foe. There is no real peace, only the brief moments while we turn our heads from one adversary to the next. .
Despite my conflicting feelings about this book, Luke Arnold’s debut impressed me on many levels. It held a rough around the edges kind of charm and its conclusion left me curious for more.