Luke Arnold’s debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City – the first installment in the Fetch Phillips Archives – is the type of noir fairy-tale so immersive and vivid, you can almost smell the scent of whiskey (or in this case Milkwood, a sugary drink favoured by our protagonist) smothered on the page. Its heady blend of fairy-tale fantasy characters are mixed with the teeming seedy metropolis that is Sunder City, making for a unique, highly enjoyable blend of genres.
We are introduced to a city whose heart has been bloodily ripped out of its chest; a shambolic, zombified cityscape, shuffling through and struggling to come to terms with the “Coda” (the term for the ruinous period of time the world now finds itself in, where magic has simply stopped working – and a piece of naming lore I really enjoyed).
“So you’re a Man for Hire?”
“Why don’t you just call yourself a detective?”
“I was worried that might make me sound intelligent”
Because, of course, this is a book that starts at the end. We are thrown into the wake of a magical disaster, and as we fall into this pit of grey, grim despair we find our protagonist, through whose first person perspective we see. A “recluse, recruit, soldier and a criminal”, Fetch Phillips is possessed of the perfect blend of dry humour, gruff likeability, and emotional depth. A perpetual underdog and barely functioning alcoholic trying to make up for the mistakes of his past, Arnold creates a surprisingly emotionally nuanced character, who you want to see do better. Tasked to find a disappeared vampire teacher, we follow Phillips on a journey as he uncovers more and more mysterious, tangled threads, all the while trying to atone for his past as the person who caused this magical catastrophe.
Whilst admittedly cliched in parts, The Last Smile in Sunder City feeds into classic noir tropes with gleeful, reckless abandon, done in such a way that it comes across as enthralling rather than off-putting. Tangled up with this fantasy element, in some ways this novel reminded me of the premise of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us (an RPG where you play as the enigmatic Bigby Wolf in the suburb of Fable – a place for lost fairy tale creatures), but also in a way that is delightfully unique as the opening scene in which we see children of different races watch a film about coping with life after the Coda proves.
“All that was left were the sparks, petrol, and pistons of the Human factories. The Human Army had won the war, but their victory had destroyed the spoils.”
The effects of this magical “castration” is vibrantly evidenced in the people who inhabit this decaying world. Elves are no longer beautiful, but aged, ancient creatures. Vampires are walking skeletons, rendered inert by their inability to feed, and Sirens have lost their voice. Humans are the only ones left untouched – both a blessing and a curse. It is under this hazy, drug and alcohol induced cloud that we follow Fetch, the weight of what he’s done sitting like stones in his shoes and culminating in a thrilling scene where we find out exactly what took place to make the magic disappear and Fetch’s role in the destruction of a city he is now trying to piece back together.
Indeed, there is something to be said for Arnold’s worldbuilding, and the cleverness and poignancy with which he presents to us the beauty and life of the world that had come before, only to shatter it over and over again before our very eyes in the present day. The exposition and stories that intermingle with the plot are pitched as sad, bitterly remembered memories as we delve more and more into Fetch’s backstory, the people he cared for and knew, and find out more of exactly what happened in this ‘Coda’.
Not only did I wish to find out more of the world and the people that had come before the Coda – of the majesty of elves, and dragons, and angels that are hinted at in the present or are shown in brief flashbacks – but to see what happened as Fetch’s search for his vampire charge led him into deeper, darker waters as mysteries tangle on top of the other. Phillips’ regret is palpable, and as his past relationships – with past friends and mentors and lovers – are brought up, we see just how heavy the burden of responsibility lies.
With a bunch of intriguing characters, rich backstory, and vivid world-building, I for one cannot wait to see what is next in store in the Fetch Phillips Archive. This book is a wonderful addition to those who love gritty, grim novels that pack a surprisingly strong emotional left hook.
[*Thank you for the lovely people at Orbit Books for sending me this book in exchange for an honest review!]
This book is now out in paperback, and can be purchased from all good book shops.
Buy it here.