Cover Image: The Last Smile in Sunder City

The Last Smile in Sunder City

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This is a debut novel, but you may recognise the author’s name. For not only is Luke an author but you may have seen him as an actor – he was Long John Silver in the television series Black Sails.

As the first novel this one introduces us to Fetch Phillips, a cantankerous, moody, grumpy sort of guy who makes his way (barely) through Sunder City, a city of iniquity and decay worthy of comparison with other decrepit urban areas.

I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are three 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, it’s not the humans who need my help.

I just want one real case. One chance to do something good. Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.

The beginning was a little generic. I couldn’t help feeling it was (at least to start) something I’d read before, an homage like many others to the film noir detective novels of the 1930’s. The cover also didn’t help, making the book at first glance feel a little like a Rivers of London ripoff, or a poor man’s Ankh-Morpork. (I thought of this before finding out that the author himself admits to being inspired by Terry Pratchett’s city in an illuminating interview at the back of the book.)

To the author’s credit, I found that the lead character was not as unremittingly nasty as some of our genre characters have been of late. Fetch is more like Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. than like someone out of Tyler Whitesides’ The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn. He has some redeeming qualities, although admittedly they are often well hidden beneath his snarky exterior. It may not be a characteristic that’s too realistic, but it’s bearable. This is a character damaged by his life-experiences, trying to survive in a changed world, a change that he blames himself for.

The surface plot is the usual detective fare. Fetch is hired by Principal Burbage to investigate the disappearance of a teacher at an interspecies school. Professor Edmund Albert Rye is a Vampire, a species that since the start of The Coda and the ensuing loss of their ability to gain sustenance through drinking blood, is in decline. Rye was also one of the founding members of The League of Vampires, the group who has vowed to protect, not prey, on weaker species, which leads Fetch to discover that this may be more than a simple missing person case.

What is actually more interesting is the back-plot that we get along the way. This is about how Fetch managed to cause the loss of Magic in an event known as The Coda, although some of this is explained in clunky blocks of exposition, such as during a school sex education class lecture at the beginning of the book. However, once the book has got over its slightly wobbly start, it finds its feet and clicks along at a great pace.

What worked for me most, more than the characterisation, was that the world of Sunder City is interesting. It is not a medieval-esque world, but a fairly modern one. There are cars and telephones, for example. It’s what we would probably describe as a factory town, created atop an underground fire pit to smelt iron. The Sunderites are generally straightforward folk – often tough, belligerent and worn down – that made me think of a 1920’s New York in style and manner. It feels industrial, with old, decaying warehouses, dark and dim bars and limited light sources. A flood in a shanty town shows the reader how precarious some areas of the city are.

This precariousness doesn’t just apply to the buildings, however. Most of all The Last Smile in Sunder City is about a world where magic, once part of everyday life, has gone and how the inhabitants deal with the consequences. Wizards, witches and warlocks have been rendered impotent. Vampires can go out in daylight, but no longer get sustenance from blood, which leads them to eventually just crumble into dust. Ogres are now having to get jobs as bodyguards, whilst dwarves are reduced to squatting in properties they can no longer afford. Necromancers have to earn their keep by working in the City Morgue, whilst Sirens are often having to make do with getting by singing and playing music in bars or even becoming strippers in less salubrious environments. Nail Gangs roam the streets, vigilante groups killing ex-magic characters for fun. It’s a sobering yet imaginative world.

What doesn’t help is that Fetch himself is a pariah, outcast from the elite ruling body known as The Opus. He’s also a human, despised because it was Humans who caused the magic to go away. Along the way we discover that he’s an ex-soldier whose life-experiences have led him to become this dour, broken person, and yet one who wants to make amends and help, despite the consequences to himself. This meandering backstory gives us glimpses into the wider world of Sunder City, which are intriguing, even if not always directly related to the story at present.

And it is this that really engaged me. By the end, and despite my initial reservations, the character of Fetch and the world he inhabits won me over. Whilst The Last Smile in Sunder City is clearly a debut novel, but one with an intriguing set-up, and once it got going became an engrossing and entertaining read that kept my attention happily whilst reading. There’s scope for more novels here, which I’m pleased about, as more books will no doubt follow. (Indeed: Dead Man in a Ditch is due in October 2020.) Now that the premise has been set up, I suspect things will now get very interesting.
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*I voluntarily read and reviewed an ARC of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. *

DNF @ 15%

Alright, this one was a bit too bleak for my tastes and I wasn't into the writing, so I decided to stop. I'm not rating it though because I think the fault lies more with me for picking up a book that isn't to my tastes and I can see the appeal, see how people will like this one.
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I’m switching things up today and reviewing three books at once. Why? Because I accidentally read three fantasy cop stories in two weeks and I don’t think I have it in me to review each one separately, but I want to talk about all of them. So the question of the day is this: which of the following fantasy cop novels takes home the golden gumshoe? Is it a) The Last Smile In Sunder City by Luke Arnold, b) The Last Sun by K. D. Edwards, or c) Titan’s Day by Dan Stout? For full transparency, Sunder and Last Sun are both the first book in their respective series, while Titan’s Day is a sequel to Titanshade, a book I have already reviewed. It’s possible that because of this I came into this showdown with a favorite, but let it be known that I attempted to curtail my bias to the best of my ability.

Next, let’s establish some judging criteria. I want to keep this clean and easy, so I’ll judge the books on three categories: worldbuilding, plot, and characters. For worldbuilding, I am looking for reasons this story couldn’t just be a cop drama – show me a cool world that adds something to the story and tension. For the plot, I am looking for a mystery or drama that is exciting and keeps me guessing. For characters, I am looking (begging) for a cast that breaks out of the bottomless pit of cop tropes and tired cast members you can find in any cop show. Now, let’s meet our contestants.

Sunder City is about a former soldier turned PI named Fetch Phillips. He is searching for repentance in a ruined world that he had a hand in destroying. Years ago he was part of an army that accidentally ripped magic out of the world, badly disfiguring and killing the majority of fantasy creatures that lived in it. Now he tries to help the fantasy creatures whose lives he ruined.

The Last Sun is about Rune Saint John, the last child of the fallen Sun Court. John is the last remaining member of an aristocratic Atlantean family. The Atlanteans are essentially high tech magical elves who resurfaced the continent of Atlantis to live alongside humans because they were bored (I am not doing it justice, but it’s complicated and not well explained). There are TONS of magical families in Atlantis with different powers, and John is hired to search for a missing son of one of the most prominent ones.

Titan’s Day is the sequel to Titanshade, and tells the next chapter of Detective Carter – a good cop who isn’t afraid to do the right thing no matter what. This book follows the discovery of a new source of energy in an oil town that is desperate for something to restart its dying economy. While political factions squabble over the new lifeblood of the city, Carter single-mindedly pursues a seemingly unrelated murder case of a “candy”. He is forced to navigate political pressures and resist becoming a pawn in the struggles tipping the city toward anarchy. But when more innocent lives are lost and time runs short, he’s forced to decide if justice is worth sparking an all-out war in the streets during the biggest celebration of the year: Titan’s Day.

Category one: worldbuilding. Worldbuilding (to me) in a fantasy cop story is more important than in a normal book. The author has to justify placing the story in a fantasy setting instead of just writing a piece of fiction. In addition, the best fantasy cop stories tie the investigation/crimes to the magic while making the worldbuilding clear enough that the reader can use it to solve the crime themselves. What I don’t want, is to read a cop story in a cool world where the magic is just a backdrop.

Sunder City starts us off strong by killing it with the worldbuilding. Luke Arnold has crafted an impressively detailed magical world then pulled the rug out from under it. He does a fantastic job of showing the reader how magic was a foundation that his society was built on – and how it crumpled, was rebuilt, and evolved once the magic disappeared. The worldbuilding is brilliantly interwoven with the mystery, and he empowers the reader to solve it themselves. Sunder City gets 4 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

The Last Sun, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. On the good hand, the world and magic are cool as heck. Each house has a different set of powers and there is a fun and inventive magic system involving the use of trinkets called “crests”. On the bad hand, the worldbuilding doesn’t quite feel coherent. It constantly feels like Edwards is giving the reader just enough information to get them through the current scene and that the world beyond the current situation is unfinished. I didn’t really believe the world was a real place. And while the magic was integral to the mystery of the plot, I didn’t really feel equipped to solve it. The Last Sun gets 2 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

Titan’s Day likely had the strongest worldbuilding of the three, but I need to ding it slightly. If you read my review of the previous novel you will see that the series has an impressively well-realized world. Stout put an agonizing amount of detail into how his magic and worldbuilding are fused into the world and the story. The rules and restrictions of the magic are set down like laws and it empowers the reader wonderfully to enter the mind of the protagonist and solve the crimes. However, one thing I was unimpressed with was I did not feel like Titan’s Day did a good job expanding the world past the road that Titanshade paved for it. Titan’s Day gets 3 out of 5 for worldbuilding.

Category two: plot. This one in my mind is the most subjective. I don’t have crystal clear criteria for the plot – but what I am hoping for is a story that isn’t predictable, is exciting, and has some good twists.

Sunder City has a perfectly serviceable plot, but it didn’t really impress me. The story focuses primarily on how the case takes Fetch through a cavalcade of situations that are difficult due to his involvement in the destruction of magic. The plot feels more like a vehicle for character growth than a good murder mystery. At the same time, it isn’t terrible, and there were a few good twists. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for plot.

The Last Sun was my frontrunner for plot. Despite the fact that the book didn’t set me up to solve the mystery myself, I was extremely invested in what was happening and urgently turning pages to find out what happened. In some ways, Edwards’ loose worldbuilding helped the book here as it provided a stronger sense of mystery and intrigue. In addition, The Last Sun has excellent combat and action scenes that put it at the top of the group in terms of excitement. The Last Sun gets 4 out of 5 for plot.

Titan’s Day continues to make this competition difficult by being complicated. On some level, I actually think Titan’s plot is phenomenal – but I am the wrong audience for it. Titan focuses on hyperrealism and trying to make the book feel like it uses real police work. I am sure there is someone out there who will really appreciate this, but it is not me. I found Titan’s Day’s plot boring — a rehash of the same exact story as Titanshade. The book felt like it had almost no growth whatsoever, and I didn’t like where it started. Titan’s Day gets 2 out of 5 for plot.

Category three: characters. With characters, I am looking for all the usual hallmarks of good character design: depth, growth, relatability, and originality. In particular, I was hoping to see something beyond the usual tropes you see in every cop drama on TV.

Sunder City has good characters that pull you into the story. Fetch is a complicated person with some very believable demons. The slow reveal of his past over the course of the story is a masterclass example in how to control what information to give the reader when. On the other hand, the supporting cast leaves a little to be desired. Sunder City is the Fetch show and it doesn’t feel like there is much room for anyone else. Sunder City gets 3 out of 5 for characters.

The Last Sun does well on characters. John is fun, relatable, original, and deep enough to stand out in this crowd. In addition, there is a plethora of supporting cast members who stand well on their own and do a lot to enhance the story. I was invested in almost every character who made it onto the page and I think Edwards killed it on their character writing. The Last Sun gets 5 out of 5 for characters.

Titan’s Day has terrible characters. I don’t know how else to phrase it. They are box standard tropes of the timeless cop identities. The characters have almost no depth. They demonstrate little to no growth over two entire books. I didn’t really like or care about any of them. After two books of no one growing or evolving, I found myself frustrated with the cast and considering giving up on the book entirely. Titan’s Day gets 1 out of 5 for characters.

Final Scores: The Last Sun just barely edges out The Last Smile In Sunder City to take my top spot of cop books I have read within the last two weeks – which is clearly a prestigious victory. Coming in way beneath both is Titan’s Day, which struggled to do anything with the excellent groundwork that Titanshade built. If I had compared Titanshade to the other two books I think the competition would have been a lot closer to a threeway tie – but I don’t think it would have taken the crown. Though each of these books has its strengths and weaknesses, The Last Sun is my recommendation for any of you looking for a good fantasy cop drama right now.

Rating:

The Last Sun – 7.5/10
The Last Smile In Sunder City – 7.0/10
Titan’s Day – 4.0/10
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This is a wonderful debut and addition to the urban fantasy genre. Fetch is such a unique character and he rides the moral grey line in a way that makes you sympathetic to his actions. There were moments that could be a little bit slow if you’re not into a flashback type of novel, but I thought the book ultimately flowed well and did a nice job of keeping our interest between these different periods of time. The world building is rich and you’d hardly know that Luke Arnold is a first time author. I’m looking forward to reading more by him.
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The last Smile in Sunder City is a post-apocalyptic world when magic is gone. The magical creature within Sunder has become sickly and tormented by the new era.  Our main character is a drunk, ex-military, orphaned, and broken-hearted man who is on a case to find a missing vampire. 

Pros: 
The storytelling is incredibly depressing, which it is supposed to be, but it pulls on your heartstrings. 
Our main character is trying to make it to the next day with all his burdens and guilt for being the cause of the new era without magic. But there is more to his origin story than what meets the eye. The missing vampire is just one piece of a bigger puzzle of what many supernatural creatures are willing to do to survive without magic. 

The audiobook was excellent, and I couldn’t put this book down! 


Cons: 
 N/A
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This book is an exciting debut by Luke Arnold. Jumping right into the story you follow Fetch Phillips, a private investigator, as he searches for a missing vampire. The catch is that there is no longer any magic fueling the mythical creatures in Sunder City, which means trouble. 

The writing was fast-paced and thrilling. The mix of mystery and fantasy lend themselves well to each other in this sort of a mystery. You think you know what's happened, but then you forget that around every corner new mysteries lurk and you never know what to expect. I also like that the backstory and the history of the world is not dumped on the reader in one fell swoop but rather develops with the story itself. More is revealed the more you follow Fetch as he tries to uncover the truth of what happened to this missing local. 

I am excited to see where we follow Fetch next!
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Arnold's effective blending of urban fantasy and traditional fantasy provides an original story reminiscent of a grittier Carnival Row. Aside from the unique premise, the author employs an impressive turn of phrase on nearly every page of this fascinating tale.
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Once again, this is one of those books that I want to love. And I still have the capacity for love in my heart for this book. But god damn it all, nothing is motivating me to read it right now.

Here I am, twenty pages in, and it’s like, “Okay, so here’s a lot of backstory and somebody being guilty and drinking a lot and boy howdy even MORE backstory.”   The prose itself is impeccable, and it paints a very clear picture of the. world that we're in.  And what a world!  We've got so many different creatures, and the idea of magic being a finite resource that could run out?  Outstanding.  

The premise is perfect – and at some point I want to do a special episode on fantasy noir with this, NEKROPOLIS, and THE IMAGINARY CORPSE because I think that’d be super cool and even sexy of me, even – but now? I’m so sorry, Mr. Arnold, but this is not the best pandemic read to go for right now.
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The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold follows Fetch Phillips, a "man for hire" in post-Coda Sunder City. The Coda was the result of an ongoing war between the Humans and the Opus, which resulted in the destruction of all magic. As a result, Elven individuals have grown exceedingly old or crumbled to dust, Vampires have lost their fangs and ability to be satiated by blood or be susceptible to sunlight, and creatures like Wyverns and Angels have lost their wings. No magical creature has been left unaltered, only the Humans remain the same.

Edmund Rye is a fading Vampire, grown old and weak as a result of the Coda. He has been a highly respected teacher working to help the species intermingle, but now he cannot be found. Fetch is hired by the principal of the species-inclusive school where Rye has been employed in order to find the missing teacher.

This was something completely different for me. I've never read a genre mix like this and I found it quite enjoyable. A lot of readers have compared it to Jim Butcher's work, so I may need to check that out. For me it felt like a mashup of fable fantasy, John Grisham detective/mystery, and some kind of western adventure. It was an odd combo, but it totally worked for me.

The whole story is gritty and dark, a bit of an underdog style story without being overly in the "hero" category. Fetch is a morally gray character with definite faults and vices. He's like a private eye verson of House, but without the ragtag support team. His supporting characters were also a lot of fun.

The world building was fun and intriguing. I loved the character descriptions and the different magical beings included in the population. I really appreciated the specifics and minor details that were peppered in along the way. I wanted to know more about these characters, which seems to be possible as this book is the first in a series. That makes me excited to see what else Arnold can add to his world.

The plot was good, but there were places where it wandered a little and/or felt a bit slow. A couple of sections felt extraneous and there probably could have been some tightening in the prose. The writing was direct and descriptive without being flowery. It fit the character of Fetch and the gray of Sunder City. The flashbacks were well done and woven into the story in a way that acted a little bit like an info dump without being boring or overwhelming. They added a lot to the understanding of Fetch's character and his personal conflicts.

Overall, the story was intriguing and I liked reading and watching how the pieces slowly came together. I will definitely be looking to pick up the sequel.
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3 stars. (Note: this review is only for The Last Smile in Sunder City, not for the other excerpts attached to the book). It’s action-packed, full of vivid description, and I find myself (almost) attached to the character despite his many moral failings. There’s a solid theme of seeking redemption. And yet…
My biggest issue is that it is simply too Gritty, Grim, and Gruesome. We dive into the underbelly of society (and, let’s face it, of our protagonist), which is rife with immorality that’s pretty vividly on display. I dislike being dragged down into the muck as much as our protagonist is (oh, and I really, really dislike demons being portrayed as a neutral species). 
From a technical perspective, I don’t find most of the characters well-characterized. Everything is about Fetch Phillips. And I find the frequent flashbacks a bit jarring. The use of “they/them” for a single character is also very distracting.
This one is not my cup of tea, piece of the pie, etc. Although “burnt milkweed” sounds delightful, whatever it is.
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It starts off slow and kind of dense, but once the action begins, it's hard to resist the story as it drives forward. It reads as a true epic, one that makes you feel the world really has been reshaped as you read it. Would recommend.
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The Last Smile in Sunder City has an extensive and well-defined world that encapsulates a desolate cityscape and creates an immersive experience for the reader. Interestingly, the story integrates the mundane aspects of our world fantastically with the supernatural of fantasy – we see vampires defanged as professors – offsetting, perhaps for only a moment, the darker and tragic themes of the book.
Apropos of the landscape, we have a protagonist, Fetch Phillips, who is a hard-to-love character with a trying past for which he is ever attempting to atone. Yet, while he should be off-putting, Fetch is instead a loveable, albeit damned, character. This functions as so because the author bares the character’s soul, which implores the reader to become enmeshed with Fetch and eventually view him as an ally.
Overall, this is a solid introduction. Instead of relying on fast-paced action, the author tediously creates thoughtful narratives and robust characters who drive the story in a wholly engrossing manner. The characters’ interaction with the city’s and their darkness is particularly compelling, and I thought it beautifully challenged the god/evil dichotomy.
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This quirky homage to hard-boiled detective fiction works well as dark urban fantasy. Reminiscent of the Dresden Files but set in a world in which magic has been destroyed, the Fetch Phillips Archives promises to be a riveting series.

Universally reviled, Phillips provides a cautionary tale of a young man whose idealism has been corrupted to foul ends. Like many individuals in the real world, he was used and discarded by both sides in a war not of his own making.

That deeper meaning is enlivened through Arnold’s authorial voice, which offers startling imagery and fascinating characters on every page. The tortured hero can never undo the horror he has wrought on the Satyrs and Gnomes, Elves and Centaurs, Vampires and Werewolves and other supernaturals who continue to linger in abject misery in Sunder City, but he can try to do good as his penance. The plot takes some surprising turns as Phillips learns who he can and cannot trust.

I hope this book will be followed by several more in the Fetch Phillips Archives.
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The Last Smile in Sunder City is the first book in a new series by Luke Arnold. Released 25th Feb 2020 by Orbit Books, it's 368 pages and available in paperback, audio, and ebook formats.

This is a gritty fantasy noir PI tale in a debut series by a debut author and I can't recall the last time I was this impressed by a new series. Within a few pages I was well and truly intrigued and within a few chapters it had secured a place in my 'auto-buy' TBR pile. In my mind, it goes to roughly the same subcategory as Glen Cook, Ben Aaronovitch (but much grittier, less humorous, and more Chandler-esque than either), John D. MacDonald (with the same melancholy tarnished knight feel), and an authentic George Sims vibe (whom I heartily recommend and for anyone unfamiliar with this great unsung British noir writer go find his work). The book is not derivative, however, and the author has a clear and unique voice of his own.

The plotting does drag in a few places, and as a first book in the series, the author spends a fair bit of page content on laying down the admittedly intriguing backstory and world structure. The characterization is spot on and for whatever reason, the author has a commanding feel for dialogue (possibly because of his acting skills?). It might be partially right-book-at-the-right-time syndrome, but I really loved this book and recommend it highly to SF/F and urban noir fans.

Five stars.

Disclosure: I received an ARC at no cost from the author/publisher for review purposes.
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This has the makings of a great series. It's not there yet, but the signs are telling.

Fletch Phillips is an unfortunately named P.I. in Sunder City, a once-booming town that suffers when the magic dries up. The world of Last Smile in Sunder City is vivid, elaborate, and well-formed. Luke Arnold, apparently an actor by day, already has a knack for world building and scene setting. And it won't take many pages before you realize he can really turn a phrase, tossing in descriptors like a less self-effacing Swartzwelder. As a main character, picture him as a more competent Frank Burly mixed with a less-capable Angel. 

The problem is that Last Smile in Sunder City works so hard at setting up the world that while it succeeds, it sometimes wavers on the story. It's not that the novel doesn't tell a captivating one, filled with the requisite twists and turns you'd expect from a neo-noir, but that Arnold's near-mastery in building the universe causes the story to jump around a bit more than I'd like. When I was reading the book, the world was easy to get lost in, and the story had enough momentum to keep me going. But when I stopped, either to sleep, get off the bus, or get back to work, the narrative didn't feel like it was waiting for me. It wasn't easy to put down, but I rarely felt desperate to get back to it. Only in the latter half, once much of the lore has been established, did the momentum really start to carry for me. Because there's so much to set-up, it sometimes feels like the book is telling too many stories at once. 
But these are small criticisms. The book isn't perfect. But the story is on its way. This is an urban fantasy that strikes me as what Max Landis would have made in Bright had he enough (or any) actual talent to pull it off. It's fun without being silly or ironic; it leaves you wanting more. The social allegories are deft and, despite the fantasy setting, organic and authentic.

Don't let 3 stars out of 5 discount that this is a solid read. Sometimes that's enough. Expect bigger and better things moving forward from Arnold. I do.
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I came to this book by being a fan of Luke Arnold's. I'm hesitant to read any book written by a celebrity (for example, actor or singer), but this wasn't the case. I don't know why but I wasn't too worried when I first heard about this book.

The Last Smile in Sunder City follows Human Fetch Phillips, a private detective with some set of morals (though he denies it) who emulates Humphrey Bogart with old wounds and a scarred psyche. His world is filled with formerly magical creatures and he's partly responsible for the extinction of magic.

Arnold is able to blend fantasy and hard-boiled detective novel really well. At part is does lead to more fantasy but I attributed this to setting up the world.

The story focuses on the AFTER of the BIG EVENT. Because of this, world building is doused into every page which becomes overwhelming at times, but once more this is the first novel. The flashbacks are well-done with the focus being on Fetch and the story of each of his tattoos. It's quite a lovely technique whenever the flashbacks use the focus of one thing to expand the world.
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3.5/5 stars — fantasy noir with imaginative worldbuilding and a world-weary protagonist

I view The Last Smile in Sunder City as two stories: that of the eponymous city and that of the main character. The former interested me much more than the latter, which left me slogging through parts of the book that dove too deeply into main character Fetch’s Phillips' history and personal life. The fundamental tragedy and awkwardness of a society whose component individuals no longer understand who they are or how they’re meant to fit together was fascinating; Fetch himself was an unsympathetic protagonist I often couldn’t get behind.

That bit in the blurb that recommends this book to fans of Jim Butcher? I did myself a bit of a disservice by ignoring it (or interpreting it optimistically, maybe), because The Last Smile in Sunder City parallels The Dresden Files in atmosphere, characterization, and theme. As in The Dresden Files, I enjoyed this book’s dark humor, its melange of urban fantasy and suspense-driven mystery, and the depth of its world. And as when reading The Dresden Files, I tired quickly of the main character’s self-flagellation without significant change in behavior and his attitude toward women. If you like Butcher’s writing, you’ll like this. If not…well.

The pacing had issues. Novels that rely on flashbacks/dual timelines often lag unless the jumps between past and present are timed well in the structure of the over narrative. In this case, most of the scenes from the past timeline came in the late second act and early third act—just when the present-day story was trying to build suspense around a disappearance and murder investigation. A number of long passages explaining the world and its mechanics weighed the pace down further.

Now for the positives! I know I came in heavy with the critique, but I did enjoy this book. I’m a sucker for punchy dialogue (internal or external) and quotable lines, and while Luke Arnold seems to live on the line between creative description and purple prose, I found even the riskier linguistic gambits memorable and mostly successful. For example, I loved this zeugma: “Mrs. Gladesmith came to the door dressed in a nightgown and despair.” Later, there was this simile, which is one of many I thought were clever: “His smile closed like a handbag with a broken zipper.”

On the content level, I appreciated that the story interrogated the idea of a traumatic childhood driving a character’s negative actions in the present. I also liked how part of Fetch’s backstory involved members of a fictional hate group grooming him to believe he a) deserved more privilege than in-world minorities, and b) was threatened by those minorities’ mere existence. That kind of rhetoric is common in recruiting by real-world hate groups and it’s valuable to see how insidious that strategy can be.

I also found the theme of loneliness compelling. We’ve got lines like, “Friends serve a purpose but every man needs a few good enemies to remind him who he is,” and “A good man is made through a lifetime of work. Great men are made by their monsters,” but for all his contemplation of friends and enemies, Fetch is isolated. He hates his fellow humans (with good reason, since they’re species supremacists in many cases) and is ostracized by those magical folk who survived the loss of magic. This struggle is one of the reasons I’m interested in continuing the series as sequels are published—I want to find out if Fetch ever becomes less misanthropic.

Anyway, that’s a long-winded way of saying my experience of The Last Smile in Sunder City was a mixed bag. I recommend it with reservations—unless you like Jim Butcher a whole lot, in which case you’ll love this book too! Even though this specific story and main character aren’t super appealing to me, I really enjoyed Arnold’s prose and worldbuilding, and will likely pick up his future books.

Content warnings: alcoholism, painkiller abuse/dependence, death, violence/gore

** I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. **
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I enjoyed this quite a bit.

I have a love-hate relationship with urban fantasies. What could be cooler than vampires and other magical creatures running around a city, maybe the very one I'm standing in? The downside is that most urban fantasies, eager to establish how their world is different than ours, rain unnecessary and tedious exposition on readers. The Last Smile in Sunder City manages to avoid some of the biggest traps and tropes of urban fantasy by:

being an urban fantasy set in another world altogether. As we as readers get our bearings for this strange and fantastical city (with some strong vibes of a darker Ankh-Morpork) that's recently survived the apocalypse, magical beings are just part of the environs we explore. Interestingly, because of this earth-shattering cataclysm, all of these magical creatures are different than what we might expect.

turning a down-on-his-luck detective with a rough past (so typical of the genre) into a more complex character by making him a key player in this apocalypse, which we gradually learn more about in flashback chapters. There's a lot of genuine pathos here, which is totally my jam.

The climax and the denouement felt too quick and out of left field for me, but it was still an absorbing read. If you like urban fantasies, I suspect you'll like this a lot.
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Just a few years ago, there was magic in the world. Magical creatures could tap into the river of it. Humans, though, were unable to touch it, so feared it and cut it off from the magical creatures. Now the creatures are suffering, having lost their magic, and are dying or trying to survive. In Sunder City, former soldier turned PI Fetch Phillips is Human, the human responsible for the magic loss. Living with the guilt of what he did, especially since he had loved a being of magic, he only takes cases from non-humans, and his current one has him searching for a missing Vampire teacher, who may be hot on the trail of bringing magic back.

Honestly, the actual book description is a lot more interesting than mine, so, if you want to see it for yourself, hop down to the bottom and click on the Get your copy link. I could have used it here, but, as much as it intrigued me and was one of the reasons why I wanted to read this book, it also meant I wasn’t really sure of what kind of story I was getting myself into. Of course, it didn’t really matter because this book is really just that good. But I still like to know what the book I’m reading is about.

The Characters: Truly Flawed
The main character, the narrator, is Fetch Phillips. He’s a Human living in a city that was once full of magical creatures. He lived and worked alongside him, but as more of a second-class citizen since he’s Human. He earned the trust of high officials, but no one could look past his Human skin. He’s a fascinating creature with a fascinating backstory, and I loved that parts of the book flashed back on his life so the reader can see where he’s coming from. It paints him as a very complex character who had to make certain choices, whether they were entirely his own or not. I loved that he was so extremely flawed, often cocky and willing to put up a fight, but still had some morals. Honestly, I sometimes found it difficult to like him. I loved how flawed he was as it really made him feel human, but sometimes it felt like it went a little too far, right into the realm of unlikable. What bothered me the most was how self-centered he felt, putting his own desires ahead of his case. But he really was a rather interesting protagonist, caught between being noble and despicable.

There were a few interesting characters, but I felt only Fetch was noteworthy. Instead, what I found most interesting was the divide between magical creatures and Humans and how they were portrayed. There’s an obvious dislike between them, so reading about their role reversal was fascinating. The magical creatures went from being on top of the world, from being the leaders, to beings just trying to stay alive and scrape by in a world now run by smug Humans. The Humans fear the magical creatures, so now treat them like second-class citizens. I thought it was interesting to read about how the magical creatures tried to retain what had made them special and different while trying to adapt to the new world all while holding out hope for the return of magic.

The Setting: A Microcosm of a City
Largely set in Sunder City, the reader is offered brief glimpses of the greater world through Fetch’s backstory. As much as I would have liked to see more of the world, Sunder City itself is completely fascinating. It was something of a microcosm. I loved the feeling that Sunder had once been a beautiful city, full of magic and interesting things, but now is absolutely run down and beat up. Still, it’s functional, though far from pretty. It’s not the kind of place I would want to visit, but I did love how gritty it felt.

My favorite part of this book is probably the setting. As much as I love fantasy cities that are amazingly beautiful and breathtaking, I found Sunder City to be something of a breath of fresh air. It was different and, since the story is focused in the city, it really came alive. As rough as it was, it felt scarily real, reminding me very much of a large metropolitan city that could be found just about anywhere in the world. Though perhaps a bit more rundown and ominous.

The Plot: A Fantastic Noir Mystery
This is a fantasy and a mystery with noir elements. Some of it was done better than other pieces, but I have high hopes for future books now that the world has been sufficiently built. That’s right, this book focuses more on the world building and development of Fetch. It felt more like a vehicle to introduce a character and a particular world. It was high on fantasy and low on mystery.

The mystery itself involved a missing Vampire teacher. I have to admit it wasn’t very exciting, except for the character Fetch referred to as Flyboy who worked for the Vampires and would, um, pop in to see Fetch unexpectedly. There were times when I just completely lost track of the development of the case because Fetch just seemed to abandon it now and then in favor of pursuing his own interests. It was a little bit of a shock towards the end when the mystery really heated up and got flowing. The entire middle portion, though, was so light on mystery that I kind of forgot what it was.

My favorite element was the noir. I have a fondness for that noir feel and was delighted to find it in this book. It helped make the city, Fetch, and the story feel gritty and rough. It took out all the pretty I usually look forward to in a fantasy book. But it wasn’t consistently done. There were many places where I wasn’t getting that noir feel and was quite disappointed with it. I think this would have been amazing if it had been consistent.

Overall, this book was slim on the plot, but it did flow well. It focused on developing the world and the characters, so it did flow. I just wish there had been more to the mystery, or had maybe introduced a more complex mystery. Still, the solution of it creates more possibilities for future books and I can see how the world can evolve. My favorite part, though, was just how well it flowed. I read aloud to my daughter every day and this was just a dream to read aloud. It was beautiful and flowing, which was a delightful contrast to the content!

Overall: Focus on World and Character Development
With a focus on character development and world building, this is not the kind of book that would satisfy someone who loves a good story. The plot wasn’t exactly exciting, but I have high hopes that the storytelling will get better with each book now that the place and characters have been established. It’s an interesting start to a series with some nice elements, and I really hope the noir carries through to the rest of the books. Overall, a very nice book that did fall short, but really excelled in other areas.

Thank you to Netgalley and Orbit for an advance e-copy. All opinions expressed are my own.
Link to post: https://thelilycafe.com/book-review-the-last-smile-in-sunder-city-by-luke-arnold
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I have already hand sold this title and wrote a shelf talker. 

I love the characters and even the back story provided doesn't drag down the first book in this series. Instead it serves as a foundational beginning of a promising series that is multi-layered. 

The characters are thoughtful, the world building nuiance, allowing it to become another character in the book. 

Fetch Phillips is flawed, complex and utterly impossible to not love. He is the perfect character upon which to anchor this new new series that serves up a combination of old school mysteries, wit/sarcasm and true heart.
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