Book Review: The Last Smile In Sunder City

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What do you do when you discover that Long John Silver has written a book? Not the actual literary character mind you, but the guy who played one so superbly on TV. You do everything you can to get a copy of it and read it is what you do! And the first question you ask yourself is “can an actor write a good book?” Well, let me say this…

Luke Arnold has crafted a thrilling urban-noir fantasy debut dripping with melancholy and regret that explores the soul’s inner turmoil of living with bad decisions and their negative consequences. It’s part fantasy, part detective story, part redemption arc, and an all around good read.

“A former soldier turned PI tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined in a world that’s lost its magic in a compelling debut fantasy by Black Sails actor Luke Arnold. Welcome to Sunder City. The magic is gone but the monsters remain. I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me: 1. Sobriety costs extra. 2. My services are confidential. 3. I don’t work for humans. It’s nothing personal–I’m human myself. But after what happened, to the magic, it’s not the humans who need my help. Walk the streets of Sunder City and meet Fetch, his magical clients, and a darkly imagined world perfect for readers of Ben Aaronovitch and Jim Butcher.” – Goodreads blurb

The down on their luck, hard boiled, self-narrated detective story isn’t new. Most of us probably think of classic films from the 40’s and 50’s popularized by actors like Humphry Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep (think of the Philip Marlowe stories). You might even turn to slightly more modern films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If you’re a fantasy reader but you’ve not read the Marlowe shorts and books you may have become a fan of Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, an urban fantasy series written from the perspective of wizard detective Harry Dresden set in Chicago. So how does one blaze a new trail off a well traveled path? Why you give it a wholly new fantasy setting.

That’s what Luke Arnold has done with The Last Smile In Sunder City. This is an urban fantasy set in a completely new fantasy world. It is filled with all kinds of mythical and fantastical creatures. A world where humans once inhabited the bottom rungs of the social and political towers of power because they were the only ones without magic. That is until the day the magic disappeared and all the non-human creatures lost their powers. Their magic went away and some, like the elves who didn’t have magic to sustain their long lived lives began to grow old and die, or vampires who began to whither away now that blood wouldn’t sustain them. That event, referred to as The Coda has shaken up the world and one man blames himself for causing it…our narrator, Fetch Phillips.

Fetch Phillips is like many noir detective characters. He’s disheveled, broke, drunk much of the time, struggles with his inner demons, is hooked on a particular drug (a painkiller chew called a Clayfield), and generally a pain in the ass to everyone who knows him. What’s different about Fetch is the reason for his state of affairs and the source of those personal demons; his role in bringing about the Coda and the fall of magic. What makes it worse is before the Coda he was friend and ally to the non-humans. He looks around and every horrible thing he sees with the world he lays at his own feet. It’s a tough burden to carry and Fetch hasn’t lifted it well.

Though the book explores portions of the wider world the majority of the narrative is set in Sunder City, an industrialized urban landscape reminiscent of late 19th or early 20th century western cities. It’s hard to pin it down a time period exactly as there are factories, and motor vehicles, yet the inhabitants still use bows and arrows, and swords.  It’s a city originally populated by dwarves, and goblins, and elves, and other magical fey creatures. These original inhabitants are still there struggling to cope with the loss of their powers. It’s a dark, dirty, hard and unfriendly place — at least the parts of town in which Fetch resides and works. And as you get to know Fetch and his story you come to realize Sunder City is a mirror into his own soul.

The Last Smile In Sunder City is a first person narrative told from Fetch’s point of view. Arnold uses classic detective story tropes and elements to tell his tale. I’ve already alluded to some of them so I won’t go into a lot more detail. Just know that if you’ve seen a few of those classic detective movies or read the books you’ll feel quite at home with the writing style. It’s dark and gritty at times, self-deprecating, yet also very humorous. Arnold alternates between the present where Fetch is chasing down leads on a missing persons case, and the past in which Fetch recounts his own history from childhood to the present day. Now it does take some time for all of that to come together, and it took me a little while to really settle into what Arnold was doing with the pacing, but in the end it made sense.

And while the present day detective story is gripping and will have you anxiously turning pages to see what happens next, it’s that alternate timeline delving into Fetch’s past that will set its hooks in you and give you the feels in the end. Because for Fetch, everything that is miserable in the world (not just with himself) is due to something he did. You know this from the start, but it’s the way it happens, the details of that past narrative that once you uncover the whole story will give you a case of the downers and have you pulling for Fetch not just to solve the case, but to come to terms with his past and present reality.

And that’s what this book is. Beyond the surface level detective story within a fantasy setting, it’s a redemption story. The first line of the book, “‘Do some good,’ she’d said” sets the tone for all that comes. You don’t know just then who said it, but it’s what drives Fetch. It’s at odds with what you might expect in a novel like this where you want to cling to hope as a theme to get you through the narrative. As Fetch points out:

“But give me a little hope and I’ll show you who I really am…The thing that kills us is the hope. Give a good man something to protect and you’ll turn him into a killer.”

So it’s a story of trying to do good, to make up for ones sins in a scarred world without clinging to hope. How does one do that? How does one find redemption in such a place? It’s a question that makes the title even more poignant…what is/was The Last Smile In Sunder City; whose smile was it, and will it return? It’s a question that will follow you through the book to the very last page.

The Last Smile In Sunder City isn’t your same old detective story. It isn’t just another fantasy tale either. It’s a wonderful blend of the two delivering a new and fresh take on each. Luke Arnold’s debut proves he’s a storyteller whose art is worth the price of admission.

And I can’t wait for the next case in the Fetch Phillips Archives.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

4 of 5 Stars

Author: Luke Arnold
Series: The Fetch Phillips Archives: Book 1
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: February 25, 2020 (U.S.)
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352

15 thoughts on “Book Review: The Last Smile In Sunder City

  1. Great review, very in-depth.

    I scored this a 4, too. I think the only thing stopping this from scoring a 5 for me was the colossal info-dumps. Some of them were long enough to be short stories and often made me forget what was going on :/ other than that, I really enjoyed it and look forward to more Fetch Phillips.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I felt a kinda the same but I also figured the subgenre kinda works that way. Every film noir detective movie I’ve watched sorta does. It also took me a little while to warm up to fetch. It was after I started really getting his background and then all the info at the end where I finally was like YEAH…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. YES! You nailed it. Such a great story and fantastic review. You summed it up perfectly, it is a redemption story. How does one go about redeeming their soul, when they have destroyed the world? I can’t wait to read the next one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. While I thought some of the flashbacks could have been shortened a little, it was utterly fascinating to see how past Fetch was headed on his personal road to Hell and how his bad choices turned him into the person of the present. And despite those bad mistakes, I still felt pity for him…
    Great review! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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