The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

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The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 2/5
Reviewer: Alex Merrick
Reviewed by Alex Merrick
Summary: In The Last Smile in Sunder City Luke Arnold has created a world where magic no longer exists. It is dark and grimy but filled with a kernel of hope in Private Detective Fetch Philips. His world building and imagination is brilliant, and Arnold has more stories to tell in this world. However, through cliched writing and one-dimensional characters, it is obvious this is his first novel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: February 2020
Publisher: Orbit
ISBN: 978-0356512884

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The Last Smile in Sunder City is an urban fantasy noir written by Luke Arnold. It centres on a Private Detective, Fetch Philips, as he attempts to find a missing vampire in a world filled with magical creatures where all the magic has suddenly disappeared with catastrophic consequences.

Urban fantasy noir is an interesting sub-genre. It fits together two different much maligned genres, that of fantasy and noir fiction. These two are seen by some as problematic in their treatment of women and in their oftentimes one-dimensional characters. Women are seen through the eyes of the main characters, usually men, and therefore have very little agency. A reader just has to look at the way femme fatales are treated in Raymond Chandler novels or the sheer lack of women, for example, there are no women in The Hobbit and only a handful in Lord of the Rings. Therefore, a combination of the two can sometimes lead to the worst tendencies being dredged up.

Fantasy noir is not just the shortcomings of the two parent genres. It is its own beast; it tells a story within an imagined world, one often quite tangential to the world building. Good authors can show and not tell. They drip feed it throughout the story until the reader can build up an image of these impossible worlds. Luke Arnold trips at this first hurdle which is a common failing of debut writers. He packs on the exposition. "Sunderia was an inhospitable land with no native people. In 4390, a band of Dragon slayers followed flames on the horizon thinking they were closing in on a kill." This heavy-handed exposition goes on for two more pages. He does utilise the first-person voice which makes the exposition feel more organic. However, it still stalls the story. Noir stories are built on their mystery and their case so if the case keeps stopping for more exposition the reader loses interest.

Arnold does have a great imagination. The concept of a magical world that has lost its magic is intriguing. The idea that the world will somehow pick itself up, brush itself off and carry on is hopeful; with the ever-impending environmental disaster and the rise of far-right populism, this is something our society needs to remember. The fantasy aspect of fantasy noir is perfect in that respect. Fantasy holds up a mirror to our current society and allows the author to evaluate our own reality in the context of a fictional one. The main concept that it is humans who halted the flow of magic due to their jealousy towards the other magical creatures is a cynical view of humans. It shows us as being petty and vindictive. However, through Fetch, Arnold allows a little light to encroach on the darkness. being a human and therefore despised by the other magical beings, Fetch still only takes on cases for these beings. He believes in fighting for the little guy.

This reviewer is aware of the cliched notion of this sentiment, especially within the confines of the noir genre. It is filled with private detectives fighting for the little guy and making a nuisance of themselves amongst corporations and dirty politicians. The Last Smile in Sunder City is saturated with these sentiments and rife with Chandleresque metaphors. Take this self-deprecatory line: "Like an adulterer leaving a cheap motel, I wondered how I'd managed to make the same mistake all over again." The almost parodistic level of this descriptive language is heightened by Fetch's moments of self-deprecation. In some instances though, Fetch feels like he could become a strong character and this reviewer imagines that Arnold has a whole host of stories to throw Fetch into; the world he has created is definitely large enough. There are even pearls of wisdom Arnold stumbles upon such as when he writes, "Every tragedy eventually becomes someone's entertainment." It is lines like this that are perfect within the noir genre: succinct, witty and at their heart just quite depressing.

Somehow, although it would seem this review throws a lot of criticism Arnold's way (and rightly so in this reviewer's opinion), the story manages to shine through. It is an entertaining imaginative yarn from a debut author. Arnold now just needs to learn how to write.

For more intriguing urban fantasy crime thrillers, I would recommend the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, or the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher.

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