ARC received from the publisher, Orbit, in exchange for an honest review.
The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Series: The Fetch Phillips Archives (Book 1)
Genre: Urban fantasy, mystery, noir
Published: 6th February 2020 (Orbit UK) & 25th February 2020 (Orbit US)
The Last Smile in Sunder City was an impressive debut by Luke Arnold; a dark urban fantasy that enraptured me with its stellar worldbuilding and writing style.
Firstly, I’ve never been exposed to much noir elements in my reading so far, so I won’t be able to make any comparisons. However, I can still safely say that this book accurately captured that feel in its worldbuilding and the characterisation of its main character, Fetch Phillips. In a world where magic was destroyed, creatures or beings dependent on magic for their existence suffered delibitating effects. The setting has a truly bleak, post-apocalyptic feel. Sunder City couldn’t be more appropriate a name for a progressive city where all hopes and dreams have been torn asunder when magic was lost.
“It was over. The world will continue to turn and there will still be jobs and seasons and kissing and chocolate; there just won’t be music in it anymore. We can bite the fruit and understand that it is sweet but not taste it. We will look at the sunrise and do our best to will some warmth into our hearts and feel nothing.”
The entire narrative is told from the first person perspective of Fetch Phillips, Man for Hire. As far as noir type stories are concerned, Fetch could be considered as a standard trope. He appeared to be an even more hardboiled Constantine. World-weary, given to vices to numb his pain and regrets, and still trying to atone for the his mistake (not with much success) even though he believed it to be futile. A man for hire for pretty much anything to get by, I saw him as a highly sympathetic and realistic character. Fetch’s voice is one of the highlights of the novel for me. I think Luke Arnold nailed his characterisation from the way he thinks and talks.
“There was no denying that it was bad taste for him to become a mortician after the Coda, but where else does a Necromancer go when the dead stop rising to his call? Sometimes it’s just too hard to say goodbye to old friends.”
There are hidden depths of emotion in our main character which I found compelling. Everyone makes mistakes, he just happened to commit the biggest one of all. When a unexpected and almost impossible possibility reveals itself, would he dare to hope again, or would he give in to resigned acceptance.
“The thing that kills us is the hope. Give a good man something to protect and you’ll turn him into a killer.”
The entire plot of the story was centred around an investigation of a missing vampire. Throughout the narrative, the worldbuilding unfolds through the interactions Fetch had with various ex-magical beings like Gnomes, Elves, Sirens, Witches, Wizards, Werewolves, etc etc. The loss of magic was felt very keenly when we get to see how these non-humans are getting by, or rather, barely scraping by. We also get rather long monologues from Fetch about his backstory leading to the annihilation of magic in this world. Although it felt info-dumpy at times, it was still fascinating.
I absolutely have to commend the writing style of the author, as I was so enamoured with it. The writing was lyrical, almost poetic at times, but also gritty, raw and darkly humourous. I don’t think that I’ve ever highlighted so many quotes in an urban fantasy book before. Many a times I caught myself swirling those phrases and word choices around in my head, savouring the elegant simplicity with which it was all put together.
“I like books. They’re quiet, dignified and absolute. A man might falter but his words, once written, will hold.”
The Last Smile in Sunder City was not your typical urban fantasy with a lot of action. It’s a slow-paced mystery and at the heart of it, about a defeated man still trying to make amends and find redemption. I’ve always thought that I’m not the type who would enjoy such bleak stories, but Arnold’s writing was remarkably engaging. Couple that with the excellent worldbuilding, and I was hooked from start to finish.
Official release date: 6th February 2020 (UK) and 25th February 2020 (US)