Unintentionally, this is the second novel I have ended up reading so far this year that takes place in a setting where magic used to exist freely, but has since disappeared, causing major changes to society in its wake. But despite this seeming similarity, both novels are very different from one another. While the first used the concept of returning magic in a YA quest, using the injustices of the class structure to create a direct allegory to the violence committed against black communities in America, The Last Smile in Sunder City presents us with a fantasy noir, following a hardened man-for-hire in a gritty city that once thrived, but was hit hard when the magic left. In this case, the distinction between magical beings and humans still clearly bears symbolism to our real world, but presented in more of a general sense of the “other”, or people trying to find a way to obtain something they do not (and have no right to) possess, or destroy those with it in order to feel more powerful than them. You can still see a clear connection here to race and marginalized communities, but the story is not per say one of empowerment anymore, but of fear and guilt in the aftermath of wrongdoing.
The novel itself centers on Fetch Phillips, living in Sunder City which was once a great industrial town due to a huge source of fire energy that the city possessed. After human soldiers attacked the source of magical power throughout the land, this fire went out, and poverty went rampant in the city. The energy here feels almost like a fantasy Victorian London, but not quite, I can’t entirely explain it: urban fantasy, I guess, but without a lot of our modern technologies (due to magic having been used for a lot of things). In any case, magical beings of all kinds with different abilities all lived here, and now those magical creatures find themselves being hugely affected in not just their abilities to make money through their magical skills, but also in their bodies: elves deteriorate, werewolves get caught between half-man-half-dog, vampires fangs fall out and they slowly wither to dust without being able (or wanting) to drink blood. One such Vampire, Edmund Rye, is a teacher at a school for young magical beings that never knew a life when magic truly existed, and therefore do not understand the effects of what happened. After Edmund goes missing, Fetch is hired to try and find the man, and let’s just say that his tactics are less than smooth; from here the story takes shape with Fetch’s investigation which leads us to information about the history of the city, and the reality that many people now live in within it.
Fetch is a former soldier who is weighed down by knowing that he had a large hand in the downfall of their society and the destruction of magic. In short, he is a miserable guy who knows how to irritate people and twist their arms to get what he wants. But is he actually good at his job, or does he just wear people down enough and happen to fall on information as he needs it? It sort of feels like the latter to be honest, as he stumbles around not really finding any strong leads, only to then be led to a conclusion with a few scraps. Overall, the plot was really halting and led itself to a lot of dead-ends and blackouts that didn’t feel like they were going anywhere. And I’m not sure that all of them did, even if there was a clear resolution to Fetch’s case in the end. Throughout the novel, we also see flashbacks of Fetch’s past and upbringing shed light on his character and how he got here. I definitely enjoyed the flashbacks a lot, and felt they did some much-needed weightlifting in giving our protagonist something to lean on other than the simple self-hatred we see throughout, but these little vignettes did spring up at times during the greater plot which took me out of it a little too much, only to need to center myself on what exactly was happening again when we got back. Truth be told, for a book that was not much over 300 pages, it certainly felt way longer than that, and took me far longer to read than I thought it would: I am all for a slow burn, but this one really just sputtered in its pacing until the last quarter or so.
But despite the so-so progress of the actual plot, there is still something I enjoyed about this novel. Fetch is a type of character I’ve seen before, sort of a John Constantine by way of Keanu Reeves: you shouldn’t like him, and he sure is a gloomy guy, but for some reason you are kind of rooting for him. And there is a mystery to be solved, after all! Not only that, but I really enjoyed the city being stitched together here: the details felt purposeful and created a very intriguing picture of this new fantasy world. I wanted to know more about the life and creatures and how things work, so in that way, the setting is really engaging and did a lot of heavy lifting.
In the end, The Last Smile in Sunder City is a debut novel from Luke Arnold, with some solid foundations in the dark noir concept and lively, rich world that has been constructed. It was just the execution and plotting that didn’t entirely stick for me. So as always, the question is, will I continue with the next book in this series once it comes out? And as is so often the case lately, my answer is, I have no definitive answer either way.